Circa 441 BCE, Sophocles set down on papyrus (most likely) his famous “Ode To Man,” a countdown of human masteries: He navigates. He cultivates. He domesticates. He preys on all but is prey to none. He crafts words for thoughts, constructs shelters, and forms states. “He has made himself secure from all but one; in the late wind of death, he cannot stand.”
That last line resonates across time and circumstance, faith and culture, the rise and fall of civilizations. What joins us to homo sapiens, past and present, is not merely the fact, but the recognition, that our days are numbered, that our expiration date is real, that we’re careening headlong toward the end of the line.
What if it were not so?
As I write these lines, scientists, theorists, technicians, entrepreneurs, and even a few kooks are laboring independently toward radical life extension, with an eye on the ultimate prize: the eradication of death. Their approaches vary wildly. From gene-editing, to growing organs for transplant, to 3D-printing nonvascularized tissue, to implanting brain-computer interfaces, to, boldest of all, uploading consciousness itself to a machine, their common theme is a desire to beat the Grim Reaper’s scythe into a ploughshare. Getting past death and dying seems to them the natural trajectory of humanity. My purpose here isn’t to judge the potentials of their various projects; it’s to consider what they’re attempting to do. What are the philosophical and sociopolitical implications of the pursuit of endless life?
But let’s be clear what we’re discussing. Mortality is the defining feature of human existence. All men, including memorably Socrates, are mortal, and every religious tradition grapples with the reality of dying. Indeed, many of those traditions coalesce around the promise that by behaving in a certain way, a spiritually actuated version of immortality awaits after the believer’s body perishes.
The prospect of bamboozling death through human ingenuity is something new and different. It’s directed at material immortality. Now, at first glance, the want of death may seem an unambiguous blessing. Consider Methuselah, however. According to Genesis, Methuselah lived 969 years, begat children, and died. Nothing else is said of him. His is the longest, least eventful life in the Bible. Think of living as long as Methuselah! Except not shriveled or debilitated, since the breakthroughs that enable such longevity are sure to keep you youthful and vigorous, or else migrate your consciousness to an avatar. You’re still you, but endlessly renewable and/or indestructible.
How will you occupy yourself on a daily basis? Perhaps by taking in new sights or making acquaintances. Or appreciating fine art and literature. Or playing sports and video games. Or engaging in sexual relations with new partners. Or drinking, smoking, snorting, injecting, or coding yourself into altered states of perception. But in a life as long as Methuselah’s, won’t any of that—or all of that—become tedious, at least for the last hundred years or so?
Now think of living a thousand Methuselah-lifetimes. That’s a million years. The sheer exhaustion of it, a life in which every sensation has been felt, again and again, a life in which every experience has been had, again and again. Perhaps, though, there will be new thoughts to think. Even after a million years! But after a thousand million years? What new thoughts will remain, what new thoughts can remain, after a life of a billion years? Methuselah lived 969 years… and then he died.
The life of Methuselah, despite its stupefying length, is not even an hors d’oeuvre, not even a blink of an eye, not even the idea of a blink of an eye, measured against life without death. Immortality does not mean living an exceptionally long time. It means living forever. After a billion years, you’re no nearer to death than you were the day you were born. You’re immortal. You’re not going to die, come the centuries, the millennia, the eons. You’re going to live on and on, ad nauseum. On and on, ad infinitum. What possession, ad infinitum, won’t become a burden? What dwelling, ad infinitum, won’t become a prison? What pleasure, through endless repetition, won’t become a sickening reminder of your psychically exhausted but inexhaustible self? If you’re feeling wobbly about now, you get the idea.
Still, by definition existence beats annihilation. And from a materialist perspective—and materialism is unmistakably the working hypothesis of the push to eradicate death—those are your endgames. Never-ending existence or never-ending annihilation. Material immortality, therefore, whether in corporeal or virtual form, seems to be a thing worth pursuing. The next question becomes how that pursuit can be hastened since, to belabor the obvious, people are dying who’ve never died before.
Two difficulties immediately present themselves. First, despite the efforts cited above, it’s certain that the realization of material immortality—if it can be realized—will be incremental. You’re going to need an epic march of science and technology, the efforts of many people, likely many generations of many people, laboring on their own and in concert.
The second difficulty is equally daunting. Since the pursuit of material immortality is an extraordinarily long-term project with an unclear probability of success, you’re going to need the right sort of social arrangement to sponsor it. You’re going to need popular buy-in, and a logically consistent politics that esteems, defends, and incentivizes the pursuit, that links the pursuit to the common weal and general will. You’re going to need, in sum, a full-on commitment. It might seem, therefore, that you’re going to need a grand social mobilization.
Upon reflection, however, a grand mobilization is exactly what you don’t need. History instructs us that such mobilizations are ill-suited to long-term achievements since they’re top-down. Whatever short-term progress you can wring out of an indifferent, skeptical, or recalcitrant population is like a sugar high; it cannot be sustained. The Soviet Union, during the last century, modernized at a breakneck pace, breaking millions of necks along the way… and lasted 75 years. Communist China leapt forward several centuries in several decades, over the longest trail of corpses ever recorded, by mimicking technologies of more advanced rivals, but at no point in its current run has it been an R&D powerhouse. Centralized planners cannot command breakthroughs. For that, you’re going to need the hearts, minds, and self-interest of your people.
The pursuit of material immortality, in other words, cannot be coerced. Coercive societies lack not only the dynamism but the shelf-life for this sort of project. The pursuit can be sustained only by a society prosperous enough, innovative enough, stable enough, and free enough to reward advances, encourage competition, and (diciest of all) accommodate religious believers whose faith traditions and personal salvific hopes are antithetical to the realization of pursuit.
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The pursuit of material immortality is predicated on the truth of materialism. But is materialism true? We know for certain that flesh and blood human beings, even enhanced by technology, wear out. So if material immortality can be realized, the process will surely require the transference of individual human consciousness, either from body to body or body to circuitry. That would, for all intents and purposes, settle the ancient materialism-dualism debate; dualism would thereby be falsified. But any society that commits to the pursuit will, over the course of the pursuit, be comprised of both materialists and believers. The interests of believers must therefore be taken into account. For the believers may turn out to be right; maybe there is a ghost in the machine. If so, if something like an immaterial soul underlies consciousness, as many believers believe, you cannot download or upload it; the pursuit of material immortality is then doomed to fail.
Even if the materialist hypothesis is correct, however, even if consciousness proves to be a wholly material phenomenon, the operative question becomes how far down it goes. If it runs down from the meat of the brain to neuromagnetic states and neurochemical charges, to molecules and atoms, to probabilistic subatomic conditions, you may never—even in principle—be able to replicate it because you encounter quantum indeterminacies when you get that far down. And there’s a growing body of literature theorizing that quantum activity is indeed what gives rise to consciousness. That, too, would kneecap the project.
But the idea that quantum activity underlies consciousness, or provides a material explanation for it, is itself highly problematic. It is, for the time being, no more than a quasi-religious belief in the guise of a strictly materialist account. To suggest that the irreducible sense of I-ness each of us experiences is a quantum quirk doesn’t explicate the underlying phenomenon, let alone the complexities of the full range of human consciousness. It doesn’t get you around the essential mystery of how information borne on a quantum level translates into first-personhood on an experiential level. It doesn’t tell you how data becomes desire. The fact that quantum theory is arcane doesn’t mean it’s magical. You’re no nearer to the empirical truth if you replace a god-of-the-gaps with a quantum-of-the-gaps.
On the contrary, even now, even given our primitive apprehension of the origins of consciousness, evidence exists that first-personhood doesn’t run that far down. The fact that mood-altering drugs work in predictable ways, bypassing quantum dice rolls, indicates (tentatively) that the experience of consciousness, including its mysterious underlying I-ness, lurks at a higher level—if, and only if, I-ness is a material phenomenon. That’s the hopeful alternative if you’re a materialist since, in that case, there’s a possibility that the phenomenon can eventually be recreated.
Let’s posit that the hopeful alternative turns out to be the case. Our purpose here is to imagine a society that would not merely hasten but catalyze the pursuit of material immortality. Such a society, clearly, will need to be prosperous, innovative, stable, and free. It will require a large, heterogeneous population, not only for the sake of collective security but also to widen the talent pool of potential contributors. You never know where the next breakthrough will come from, which again reminds us that the society will be populated by religious believers as well as strict materialists. But what stake would believers have in a society committed to the pursuit of material immortality… since it seems, paradoxically, that they have a rooting interest in the pursuit’s failure?
Perhaps just this: believers, like materialists, want to be justly governed. The recognition that the pursuit of material immortality can be sustained only by a prosperous, innovative, stable, free society is also a recognition that it can only be sustained by a justly governed society. To be sure, the specific powers and limitations of just government are debated on a continual basis. But the desire for prosperity, innovation, stability, and freedom are universal. Thus, the perpetuation of just government, wherever it has taken root, is in the interests of every member of that society. A society committed to the pursuit of material immortality layers onto that universal desire for just government a teleological order. The collective will of the people, expressed by elected representatives, is to direct resources and energies toward the pursuit.
The totality of these requirements—prosperity, innovation, stability, and freedom, as well as size and heterogeneity—points us toward liberal democracy. That’s not a moral judgment; whether liberal democracy is the most moral social arrangement is beside the point. Rather, it is a judgment of means and ends. If material immortality can be realized, liberal democracy is the logical path to it. People buy into social arrangements in which their individual rights are ensured, their collective voices are heard, and their standard of living steadily improves. You need their continual buy-in to sustain a scientific and technological project of this scale. So a society that commits itself to the pursuit of material immortality thereby commits to perpetual liberal democratic rule, to principles of just government rooted in the recognition of natural rights—again, not because such an arrangement is the most moral but because it’s the likeliest to realize material immortality, if indeed the thing can be realized.
Thus committed, the society becomes teleologically ordered. It becomes purposed to the delivery of material immortality. That purpose, moreover, tells us something else about such a society: it’s going to be capitalist. If the requirements of long term stability and freedom point toward liberal democracy, the requirements of long term prosperity and innovation point toward capitalism. You’re going to need an economic engine of sufficient power to sponsor research of the type associated with universities, but also of sufficient elasticity to encourage high-risk/high-reward private enterprises. You’ve got to be willing, in other words, to invest public funds when a new theory looks promising but not get too grabby when private entrepreneurs and speculators score big. (That resistance to collective grabbiness, by the way, is what points us toward liberal democracy rather than social democracy.)
The history of the last century couldn’t be clearer: a free market—which is to say a relatively free market—provides incentive and space for the exchange of information. The dynamic of producer-supply and consumer-demand is nothing more than a system of information-sharing. The producer and consumer are not working together, yet they’re cooperating. Information-sharing is the critical element in capitalism’s dynamism. It’s the lubricant. Centralized planning may seem at first glance more conducive to the collective effort required to deliver material immortality—since, again, you need various segments of the economy to work in concert—but centralized planning, owing to its top-down nature, severs the feedback loop that occurs organically between producer and consumer. Centralized planning thwarts outside-the-box thinking, and you’re definitely going to need to look outside the box in the pursuit of material immortality.
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So, if material immortality can be realized, it will be realized by a liberal democratic, capitalist society. It may be objected, of course, that capitalism isn’t the fairest social arrangement. Capitalism doesn’t work as well, or in the same way, or on as generous terms, for a janitor as for a corporate executive. So if fairness is your prime social value, and by fairness you mean something like equal socioeconomic outcomes for all members of a society, capitalism won’t get you there. That’s not what it’s designed to deliver. What capitalism does deliver is material comfort, leisure time, and hope. It doesn’t deliver them to everyone evenly, but to all increasingly. That dictum, when it comes to the pursuit of material immortality, goes beyond the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats. For with each incremental advance, you’re getting extended longevity and enhancements of quality of life.
Capitalism cannot render equal outcomes. Nor can it render equal opportunities, as is often erroneously claimed. Rich people pass along socioeconomic advantages to their children; their desire to do so is often what drives rich people’s productivity. Advocates of a society teleologically ordered to the pursuit of material immortality should therefore make an honest case for capitalism in the starkest possible terms: even though unequal outcomes inevitably result in unequal opportunities, and grossly unequal outcomes result in grossly unequal opportunities, the teleological order is furthered by that inequality. This is a critical recognition in the pursuit of material immortality. It should be tempered, to be sure, by the recognition that a reasonable degree of opportunity must be available to all members of society. Again: not because it’s fair, but because opportunity fuels the insatiable machinery of capitalism. It promotes collective efficiency by channeling the most talented, industrious members to productive, influential roles. The pursuit is likelier to advance as a consequence.
A society that fixates on equality of outcome or opportunity is one that cannot adequately reward innate talent and individual industry. Neither talent nor industry is distributed evenly among members of a society; if you permit a society’s members to capitalize on either of them, a hierarchy will emerge. The rich will get richer. The result will never be a true, permanent meritocracy since later generations, born with a leg up, may not manifest the talent or industry of their ancestors. (Think Paris Hilton.) So you’re going to get a kind of accidental aristocracy. It’s more fluid than traditional bloodline aristocracies, but it’s an aristocracy nonetheless. It must be tolerated in order for the pursuit to proceed because an unwavering devotion to fairness, or “social justice,” requires the suppression of individual excellence—literally, the processes by which one member of a society excels another. The corollary of a devotion to social justice is a flattening of human achievement.
The pursuit of material immortality, if it follows a logical course, will make many collective demands on a capitalist society, one of which will be prioritizing individual excellence over social justice. Liberty must trump equality in the pursuit of material immortality. Yet with a crucial caveat. Liberty must trump equality, though never to the point at which inequality threatens social stability. Capitalism, again, is nothing more than a machine. It’s fueled by human nature itself, what’s fine and base in us; it’s fueled, to be exact, by creativity and competitiveness, determination and acquisitiveness. These are the elements that will deliver material immortality, if it’s deliverable. Remember, this is not your father’s immortality, the one that he, his father, and his father’s father prayed for. This is capitalism at work. Immortality is another product, the ultimate durable good requiring the ultimate technological advance. If it can be realized, there will be an unending market for it; the profit incentive to realize it is thus staggering.
But a capitalism of the kind likeliest to deliver material immortality cannot be a dog-eats-dog system in which the strongest corporations monopolize markets. Monopolies are counterproductive to the pursuit because they stagnate. Without ongoing competition, corporations’ market shares are ensured; thus, there is less financial incentive to push the innovation envelope. Material immortality requires an unflinchingly forward technological march. For that reason, corporate monopolies must be discouraged. If they emerge anyway, they must be dissolved.
Nor can a teleologically ordered capitalism be disconnected from its consequences. Free markets will operate with Darwinian ruthlessness, even to the point of starving the least productive members of society, if left unfettered. Such ruthlessness might prove efficient in the short term. But over the long haul, you get unrest. The pursuit of material immortality, to repeat, requires not only prosperity but stability. You cannot have huddling masses cast out of their homes and children scavenging for food. Suffering inspires social upheaval. Will a society committed to the pursuit of material immortality support public welfare programs of the kind found in contemporary liberal democracies? How can it not? Quite apart from the humanitarian case for an economic safety net, such a society must ensure the basics of a decent life for the least-well-off of its members. You cannot abide the poor to be desperately poor, chronically poor, or hopelessly poor. Not because you’re charitable but because a desperate, chronic, or hopeless underclass undermines social stability, and social stability is a necessary condition to sustain the pursuit of material immortality. Recall, too, that the realization of material immortality, if it happens, erases every distinction between haves and have-nots.
Which leads us to the Ultimate Question: What if material immortality cannot be realized? We mustn’t lose sight of that possibility. If first-personhood runs down to the level of quantum indeterminacies, replicating it may prove undoable, even in principle. Then, too, the materialist hypothesis may prove wrong. That elusive ghost in the machine also sinks the entire enterprise. What happens then?
Not much, as it turns out. For at what point in the pursuit of material immortality would you know—could you conclude—that your labor has been in vain, that the pursuit has failed? Consider that at the moment despair kicks in, at the moment the pursuit begins to feel hopeless, you may be a year from a paradigm-shattering breakthrough. Or a decade. Or a century. If you’ve been holding ’em for a dozen lifetimes, or a hundred, how do you know when to fold ’em?
When you discover a soul? You’re going to need something much sharper than genetic scissors to pare your way down to angels dancing on the head of a pin. When you discover a quantum basis for consciousness? Yes, that might be the final nail in the coffin of a coffin-less future. But how do you make such a discovery if quantum conditions, even in theory, cannot be pinned down to establish a causal link with I-ness? Or would a quantum account become the fallback, after every other account has been exhausted? But at what point do you know that every other account has been conceived?
The answer to the Ultimate Question is thus moot. From a sociopolitical standpoint, it doesn’t matter once you’ve committed to the pursuit. The pursuit has come to define you; it’s who you are, collectively. You’re a justly governed society, teleologically ordered toward the pursuit of material immortality. To be justly governed is a good thing, and if a teleological order sustains that just government, if it forms a bulwark against irrational deviations, then that teleological order is also a good thing, even if it is ordered toward an unrealizable end.
The pursuit of material immortality, even if material immortality cannot be realized, is the most reasonable long-term course of civilization; it’s thus the busywork of humanity.
Mark Goldblatt is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, including the bestselling novel Twerp, and its sequel Finding the Worm (both from Random House). He’s written for publications including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time, New York Observer, the New York Post, USA Today, the Daily News, Newsday, and National Review. You can follow him on Twitter @MarkGoldblatt.