Science / Tech, Tech

Would You Opt for Immortality?

Before the 7.6 billion people alive today, demographers estimate that about 100 billion people lived and died. This is the reality of the human condition. Memento mori, as medieval Christians reflected—Remember that you have to die.

What if it didn’t have to be this way? There are, in fact, organisms whose bodies steadily and reliably replace cells with healthier cells, and whose tissues and organs self-repair and maintain their vigor. They’re called children. And there are cells in adults that divide indefinitely. They’re called cancer. What if there were a way to genetically re-engineer and chemically reprogram our cells to divide indefinitely like they do in children, and to continue this process throughout adulthood without becoming cancerous? Could we become immortal?

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work,” Woody Allen once said, “I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” There are today well-funded groups of scientists who believe we can do just that. If these techno-dreamers succeed, would you want to live for 150 years? 300 years? Or even 500 years? I’m not talking about being brain-dead and bedridden on a morphine drip. I mean living a full, rich physical and mental life for centuries, possibly forever. Would you opt for immortality?

Most people say they would not. In surveys that ask people how long they would like to live, most say that they would not want to carry on much past the current average life expectancy. This is another example of status quo bias, or our emotional preference for whatever it is we are used to.1 Our personal life expectations are yoked to those of our generation’s life expectancy. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll of 2,012 American adults, for example, 60 percent said that they would not want to live past the age of 90, while another 30 percent said they would prefer to cash out by age 80. And these findings were consistent regardless of income, belief (or not) in an afterlife, and (in some cases) even anticipated medical advances. When it was proposed that “if new medical treatments slow the aging process and allow the average person to live decades longer, to at least 120 years old,” a slight majority of 51 percent said that they would not personally want such treatments, and that it would be “fundamentally unnatural” and “a bad thing for society.”

Leaving aside for a moment the societal question of overpopulation, resource depletion, and how we would feed and provide for the billions of surviving centenarians (and beyond), I find the “it wouldn’t be natural” objection to radical life extension readily gainsaid by a simple thought experiment. If you were given a death sentence of, say, tomorrow, would you want to live one more day in order to get your affairs in order and to tell everyone you love how you feel about them? Of course you would. How about one more week? Definitely. Another month? Absolutely. One more year? Well, there are more things to do, so sure. Would you like to live another decade or two or three? Sure! That would give you time to travel and perhaps even take up a new career.

At some point I might find the time horizon at which you’d say “that’s enough”—perhaps a half century from now—but fast-forward to the day before that date and we’re back to the cycle of wishing for one more day, week, month, year, decade…. Unless you are terminally ill and in such pain and misery that one more week or month is manageable only through massive doses of morphine, at no point is a reasonably healthy and happy individual realistically likely to be willing to check out early just because “it wouldn’t be natural” to continue. As for society, let the nihilists and the cynics fall on their swords. I’ll take another sunrise and sunset, thank you.

The Pew findings bear this out. Respondents were more likely to favor life extension if they are younger, believe that future medical treatments would provide a higher quality of life, if they could still be productive by working longer, if they wouldn’t be a strain on our natural resources, if older people were not seen as a problem for society, and if living longer did not result in debilitating diseases and disabilities.

What is natural is for healthy, happy, and productive people to desire to continue living and loving for as long as they remain healthy, happy, and productive. More and more, people are ignoring the aspiration captured by the rock band The Who in their 1965 anthem My Generation: “I hope I die before I get old.” This includes the band’s aging frontmen Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, who are still touring half a century after they flirted with taking the path of their drummer Keith Moon, who died at age 32 from the then customary drug overdose.

The idea of living forever, in fact, is not such a radical idea when you consider the fact that the vast majority of people already believe that they will do so in the next life. Since the late 1990s Gallup has consistently found that between 72 and 83 percent of Americans believe in heaven. Globally, rates of belief in heaven in other countries typically lag behind those found in America, but they are nonetheless robust. A 2011 Ipsos/Reuters poll, for example, found that of 18,829 people surveyed across 23 countries,2 51 percent said they were convinced that an afterlife exists, ranging from a high of 62 percent of Indonesians and 52 percent of South Africans and Turks, to a low of 28 percent of Brazilians and only 3 percent of the very secular Swedes.

So powerful and pervasive are such convictions that even a third of agnostics and atheists proclaim belief in an afterlife. Say what? A 2014 survey conducted by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture on 15,738 Americans between the ages of 18 and 60 found that 13.2 percent identify as atheist or agnostic, and 32 percent of those answered in the affirmative to the question: “Do you think there is life, or some sort of conscious existence, after death?”

Depending on what these people believe about what, exactly, is resurrected in the next life—just your soul, or both your body and your soul—the belief among religious people that “you” will continue indefinitely in some form in the hereafter is not so different in principle from what the scientific immortalists are trying to accomplish in the hear and now.

I am very skeptical of all religious scenarios of the afterlife, and I have my doubts that these techno-immortalists will succeed, especially for my generation of baby boomers edging ever closer to the upper ceiling of our life expectancy. But I secretly hope that along the way they will at least stumble across cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s before I succumb to these scourges of our species. And if they do succeed in radically extending human life, instead of settling for John Donne’s conviction that “One short sleep past, we wake eternally,” we should opt for Dylan Thomas’s conviction and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

In the meantime, whether there is an afterlife or not, we don’t live there and then. We live here and now. So make the most of every day, every relationship, and every opportunity to make your life, and the lives of those in your orbit and elsewhere and in future generations, just a little bit better than they were before. That is all any of us can hope for. It may not be heaven, but it is a type of heaven on earth.


Mr. Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His latest book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia, published January 9, 2018 by Henry Holt and Co.


References and Notes:

1 Samuelson, W. and R. J. Zeckhauser. 1988. “Status Quo Bias in Decision Making.” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 1, 7-59.
2 Countries surveyed were Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and the U.S.


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  2. Robin says

    Opting for immortality is a no-brainer when you’re healthy and productive. Think about this:
    Elon Musk works 14-15 hours a day, helping us colonize Mars. However, his dream of “putting a million people on Mars” is going to take decades. He knows he might not be alive to witness Mars tourism. He’s 43, and might live 40 more productive years atmost.
    But what if Elon Musk has the option to extend his life? Our world and civilisation will benefit radically. Not only will there be significantly more progress in Space colonialism, but other fields – AI, healthcare, energy – will also radically improve.
    Extending life – if done carefully – will do miracles to humanity. Our probility of extinction will reduce.

    • “What if Elon Musk had the option to extend his life?”. Your counterfactual extrapolation is not necessarily sound. How do you know Musk, to use Jim Jeffries’ phrase, would not “get used to it and then be fucking bored”? Here’s a hypothetical “me”. When I was very young I used to enjoy lying on my back playing with garishly coloured plastic things. I no longer do. When I was a bit older I was like all youngsters thinking they would remain “rock and roll” and refuse to become a boring adult. I now find such youngsters and their interests mind numbingly boring. As an adult I have declared, sincerely, undying love to more than one woman, whose company and flesh I no longer enjoy. As a more mature adult I have enjoyed the application of my abilities and energy to what I see as worthwhile worth, but it is now a grind. As an even more mature adult I looked forward to the well-earned luxury of indulging my interests in a later retirement, but after the initial buzz and real rewards of time to spend in a choir, playing tennis, reading widely, volunteering, doing evening classes in contemporary dance and whatever else takes my fancy, enjoying my grandchildren, and more, my more satisfying moments are now spent looking at the light filtering through the trees and hearing the wind in the leaves whilst just walking. This is a good trajectory, but one that involves getting “fucking bored” of previous stuff. I don’t think Musk is so super human that he’ll have a relentless interest in the next engineering feat that benefits humanity. Hopefully he’ll continue for a long while, but not be a Steve Jobs type who knowingly goes to his grave trying to make more phones.

      Opting for immortality is not the no-brainer you claim. That’s the statement of someone who’s not lived very long (the alternative would be being a bit simple). I’m sure there must be great novels out there that have represented this well. Immortality would, eventually, be hell.

      • George says

        Robert Heinlein wrote a series of science fiction novels based on the concept of people who are genetically gifted with very long lives, eventually combined with medical technology that extends life indefinitely. One story centers on the oldest man alive, who has seen millennia come and go. His memory banks are full. He hasn’t experienced a truly new perception, thought or feeling in centuries. All he really wants is to be allowed to die.

        Heinlein posits that such a condition arises after one has lived for millennia. There comes a time when you’re simply done. There is nothing left to experience, nothing you haven’t already seen or felt a hundred times. Presumably none of us currently have this perspective. Any who do are keeping it a secret from the rest of us, and probably for good reason.

        No one now knows what it’s like to live a thousand years, or three thousand. No one knows what not facing the ultimatum of “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” would do to our personal psychology. There’s only one way to find out. And my guess is that Heinlein got the broad outlines right: nobody is going to want to opt out at eighty or ninety when eight hundred or nine hundred is possible. But, there will come a time when, like the preacher in Ecclesiastes, we find there is nothing new under the sun, and it’s time to let it all go.

    • Veronica says

      As not everybody is Elon Musk – and you don’t know what will Elon Musk be like in 30 years time – the idea that extending life will do miracles to humanity looks a bit shabby. I can think of some people whose life I don’t want extended.

    • David Turnbull says

      Your DNA storage and regeneration premise breaks down on both counts.
      1. Identical twins are in fact not identical and a cloned body would not be ourselves.
      2. Storing our ‘minds’ is at this time pure science fiction with no obvious way forward.

      • Thx David,

        Re: “Identical twins are in fact not identical” no two things that are physically separate are. When you sleep and wake up, you’ve changed, and over a decade you’ve really changed. Nothing alive is immutable, our bodies are communities of organs living cooperatively, of genes doing the same. But our day to day morphology is not the issue, because:

        Re: “…a cloned body would not be ourselves.” yes it would be, for many reasons. First, there are identical copies of your phenotype, across billions of living cells, that ARE identical, sort of a super-blockchain verification that, if this isn’t you, it sure as hell isn’t anyone else.

        But Sherm’s question is ill-posed here, as I mentioned, because he excludes the prospect of gaining fresh life cycles, which I recommend as a philosopher as the proper study in these matters.

        In a previous book “The Humanist – 1000 Summers” I posit that our species pledges to harmonize with ourselves, our planet and sister species (Humanism) for 1000 years in exchange for additional life cycles. This promise is integrated into major religions as fulfilling aspirations held since time immemorial of an afterlife. But I digress:

        Re: “Storing our ‘minds’ is at this time pure science fiction…” is correct, and so is cryonics (freezing). Both suffer, like Sherm’s question, from not considering what our true opportunity is – which is fresh life cycles. I maintain, like EO Wilson that the brain plays center field for the sense organs and homeostasis, that it’s a single-use diaper or IT wheelhouse for a one-off 40 year life cycle.

        There is no consciousness, only a Self that is subtended by your DNA. Even plants have it, and every living thing knows when the game is on.

        Give more a fresh life cycle to consider whether I’m bored with all this… 😉


        • David Turnbull says

          Twins (and therefore clones) are not identical, even from birth. It is not life history that makes them diverge.

          There is no point to fresh life cycles if they aren’t ‘you’.

  3. Caligula says

    ” According to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll of 2,012 American adults, for example, 60 percent said that they would not want to live past the age of 90, while another 30 percent said they would prefer to cash out by age 80.”

    This reminds me of surveys where people are asked whether they’d wish to continue living if an injury were to render them quadraplegic. The surveys reveal that practically everyone responds that they would not.

    Yet, when people actually are injured, and after the shock wears off and they adjust, practically all quads insist that their lives do have a great deal of value to them. Not that they wouldn’t rewind whatever caused the injury,of course, just but that despite the restrictions they find life worthwhile and seem to have as much will to live as anyone else.

    Now if the survey-takers were to interview 80- or 90-year-olds who were still in reasonably good health and ask if they wish to be painlessly dispatched right now, and if the survey-takers were prepared to carry out that choice right now, then they might get reliable data.

    But as it is, this sort of survey data seems pretty worthless.

  4. Bob says

    Most people believe Tithonus’ fate is inevitable when they contemplate immortality. He asked his Eos, goddess of the dawn, for immortality. He regretted it when he realized that he hadn’t stopped ageing.

  5. Alex says

    Turns out I was strongly in favour of being immortal, until I learned that the Universe is perpetually expending…. Which means that sometimes in the distant future, stars will be so far apart that the sky will be entirely dark, the universe as cold as the deepest of winters, with no sound.

    Like living in coffin, in absolute darkness.

    Do you really want to be immortal?

    thanks but no thanks.

    • Even with the best life enhancing technology the odds that anyone now will be alive then is astronomically small. Even with digital upload. Time is really really long. P.S: we can move galaxies at that point by building half spheres around their central black holes. Also all the time that happens after the stars all turn into black holes is so vastly longer than the time that the stars will be burning that its practically impossible to really wrap your head around. But in theory even then we would be able to run thriving civilizations. So really radical life extension (Even by millions of years) has virtually no impact on a cosmic scale. It takes our solar system 22million years to orbit the milky way for example. You are more likely to be taken out in a random accident than live that long.

  6. augustine says

    The quest for immortality sounds like another installment of a modern liberal philosophy that cannot accept any natural order or “arbitrary” limits and boundaries. Meaning in life is found only in breaking new ground and demonstrating that the old is doomed and should be discarded. How is such a radical and barren philosophy so successful in the West these days?

    My grandmother lived to over 100 in good health. She explained that her readiness (really her choice) to “move on” had more to do with losing friends and family over her last decades than anything else. She had a sense of a life lived well. From her I learned that a meaningful life, with connections to likeminded mortal beings, especially our progeny, is what matters most. If we cannot find that in a span of ~70-90 years why would we expect to do better by adding on more decades?

  7. Walter Heenan says

    It’s generally easier to contemplate and accept someone else’s death…like that stranger who will be inhabiting your body a decade or more in the future.

  8. Eric Smith says

    I already have opted for immortality, but not in the way this article suggests. I put my hope in not but one man, no matter how altruistic the person may seem at the time.

  9. Jeremy Poynton says

    Good Lord no. That we die is what ultimately gives meaning to life.

  10. Aaron says

    We arent vampires who enter into some undead state we couldn’t escape from. There would be no ‘decision’ binding on us. Do I want to live longer? Yes. How long? I don’t know. Call me up on my 125th birthday and I’ll let you know my plans.

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  12. Dear Dr. Schermer,
    I myself would like to travel through time to prevent your particular brand of inanity ( combining percentages, banal sentiment and pointless speculation ), from gaining a foothold in online journals.

  13. S.A. says

    And I prefer Thomas Mann’s perspective to both Donne’s and Dylan Thomas’s: examining death is another way of examining life.

    Death is a necessity to life. The further we inoculate ourselves from it, the further we inoculate ourselves from examining life and how it should be lived, not only as it regards ‘society at large’ but especially as it regards ourselves as individuals. That is what “The Magic Mountain” is about.

    Part of being an adult is not only learning, but accepting, the fact that just because we want something doesn’t mean that we will get it: more than that, it doesn’t mean that we should get it. Consequently, learning how to live is largely about coming to terms with the fact that one day we will die, and the burden of the human condition is that we, as individuals, have to find meaning in life despite the knowledge of our own ineluctable annihilation.

    Therefore, while it’s understandable and perfectly natural that individuals would do anything to extend whatever time they had on this earth, Shermer is not actually talking about life as we live it. Our attempt to attain ‘immortality’ by prolonging mortality is not the province of men, but the province of the gods. And as those Olympians proved time and again, they were little more than overgrown children.

    Which isn’t to say that we should abandon medicine or any attempt to make life “better”. It’s just that the attempt itself, in all its salubrious beneficence, can blind us to our fundamental nature (that we are born and we die) and the dire consequences that can unwittingly result from such godlike achievements.

  14. Christopher Blair says

    Assisted suicide may become a thriving business if immortality isn’t all its supposed to be. If someone has the resources and the will to venture towards extended life then bully for them. Until the first wave of immortalistas exist we won’t know the ups or the downs, will we?

  15. I personally like the notion of quantum entanglement. One interpretation of this phenomena says that all particles in the universe are connected. So, if you slap one particle on the butt here on earth, another particle which is, say, a billion miles away, will go ouch – and do so instantaneously. So, when we die, all the gazillion particles in our bodies are not destroyed. They cannot “die” due to the laws of conservation. Just fun to think about.

  16. Joaquin Gonzalez says

    Why would people that believe in afterlife would want to extend their life here on earth?

  17. James Holloway says

    I want immortality with an escape clause. I.e., the right to end it.

    And, ya, none of this years of decrepity and pain. That’s not what I’d call living.

  18. Jeff York says

    No. At 59 I’m already weary of the incessant struggle that is life. (First grandchild is due any day now so I’m looking forward to that). I got too much sun when I was young and periodically a dermatologist has to cut another piece of me off. I’m not any kind of scientist but I don’t believe that we’ll ever be able to transfer our consciousness to a computer of some kind. I also don’t believe that humans will ever live much beyond ~120 years (and that last ~30 years will be grim).

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