Revised Thoughts on the Demise of Death

September 05 2008 / by Mielle Sullivan / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Health & Medicine   Year: General   Rating: 7 Hot

A follow-up to last week’s Demise of Death

My post last week on the Demise of Death received so many thought provoking comments that I feel compelled to further the discussion in another post. The new information and perspectives contained in the the comments have transformed the way I intend to approach parts of the debate.  With such a fertile discussion ground, I felt I would be remiss if I did not give attention and thanks to several of the eloquently expressed ideas.

Here’s the point-by-point update:

Nanotech & Biotech Will Not Necessarily End Death: That death may remain even if aging is cured was a point raised by a few of the commentors.  If our bodies did not deteriorate into death, fatal accidents, acts of violence etc. could still bring about mortality.  I realize that my rationale for thinking we may be able to conquer death altogether was somewhat obscure in my first post.  One theory proposed by futurists and transhumanists, is that to truly conquer aging, we will not be able to rely merely on stem cells, genetic therapies and drugs. 

These treatments can, the theory argues, only go so far to combat cellular deterioration.  If we are to truly end, and not merely delay aging, we would eventually have to develop nanobots capable of precisely repairing cells.  My own logic followed that if we are able to create effective cellular-repair nanobots, we will have mastered nanotechnology and it will serve a number of other functions beyond cellular repair. 

Prolific poster Dick Pelletier has pointed out a few times that if nanobot technology were mastered, we could, in theory, surround ourselves in a sort of thin nanobot shield that could, in theory, protect us from violence and accident.  Perhaps I have taken this rationale too far. It does not logically follow that by ending aging we will necessarily end death by accident or violence, but I think it is at least a reasonable possibility.

Taking Control of Your Fate Opens Pandora’s Box: Let us consider my original conjecture is incorrect and that we will be able to bring an end to aging, but not death by accident or violence.  If this becomes true, we will, in effect be gaining a greatly extended life at the expense of knowing that death will certainly come either by violence, violent accident or suicide.  I cannot help but think these are all troubling ends. 

Admittedly, most deaths now are troubling.  Death by disease and aging is most often the end of a long, painful, degrading, messy battle.  But, at present, we can at least hope to be one of the lucky few to die comfortably, unknowingly in their sleep.  This hope will be eliminated if aging is defeated. 

Even to me the benefits outweigh the downsides, but it is deeply disturbing to know you will one day kill yourself if you aren’t hit by a bus or murdered first. This is in part what I meant when I wrote that I considered myself a part of nature and do not wish to be removed from the natural process.  Taking your fate out of the hands of nature results in some very difficult decisions.

Accepting Suicide? This idea of death occurring either by chance or choice is tied to another point raised in the comments.  Johnfrink said, “I’m pretty sure if we conquer death eternal life will not be forced on anybody.”  And I am inclined to agree.  It is unlikely that in a future without aging, omniscient police will parole the streets taking into custody all those thinking of ending it all.  But that doesn’t mean suicide will be any more desirable than it is today. 

Physically healthy people commit suicide everyday, all over the world, and society does not approve.  Family and friends of those that commit suicide feel betrayed, hurt and ashamed. The community at large often acts with sadness and dismay, often with condemnation.  Could this ever change?  Could a community ever accept that people want to end their lives?  Perhaps, but I have a difficult time imagining family and friends peacefully allowing a healthy loved one to end his or her life.

Nanotech & Biotech Will Not Necessarily End Death: That death may remain even if aging is cured was a point raised by a few of the commentors.  If our bodies did not deteriorate into death, fatal accidents, acts of violence etc. could still bring about mortality.  I realize that my rationale for thinking we may be able to conquer death altogether was somewhat obscure in my first post.  One theory proposed by futurists and transhumanists, is that to truly conquer aging, we will not be able to rely merely on stem cells, genetic therapies and drugs.  These treatments can, the theory argues, only go so far to combat cellular deterioration.  If we are to truly end, and not merely delay aging, we would eventually have to develop nanobots capable of precisely repairing cells.  My own logic followed that if we are able to create effective cellular-repair nanobots, we will have mastered nanotechnology and it will serve a number of other functions beyond cellular repair.  Our prolific poster Dick Pelletier has pointed out a few times that if nanobot technology were mastered, we could, in theory, surround ourselves in a sort of thin nanobot shield that could, in theory, protect us from violence and accident.  Perhaps I have taken this rationale too far. It does not logically follow that by ending aging we will necessarily end death by accident or violence, but I think it is at least a reasonable possibility.

Taking Control of Your Fate Opens Pandora’s Box: Let us consider my original conjecture is incorrect and that we will be able to bring an end to aging, but not death by accident or violence.  If this becomes true, we will, in effect be gaining a greatly extended life at the expense of knowing that death will certainly come either by violence, violent accident or suicide.  I cannot help but think these are all troubling ends.  Admittedly, most deaths now are troubling.  Death by disease and aging is most often the end of a long, painful, degrading, messy battle.  But, at present, we can at least hope to be one of the lucky few to die comfortably, unknowingly in their sleep.  This hope will be eliminated if aging is defeated.  Even to me the benefits outweigh the downsides, but it is deeply disturbing to know you will one day kill yourself if you aren’t hit by a bus or murdered first. This is in part what I meant when I wrote that I considered myself a part of nature and do not wish to be removed from the natural process.  Taking your fate out of the hands of nature results in some very difficult decisions.

Accepting Suicide? This idea of death occurring either by chance or choice is tied to another point raised in the comments.  Johnfrink said, “I’m pretty sure if we conquer death eternal life will not be forced on anybody.”  And I am inclined to agree.  It is unlikely that in a future without aging, omniscient police will parole the streets taking into custody all those thinking of ending it all.  But that doesn’t mean suicide will be any more desirable than it is today.  Physically healthy people commit suicide everyday, all over the world, and society does not approve.  Family and friends of those that commit suicide feel betrayed, hurt and ashamed. The community at large often acts with sadness and dismay, often with condemnation.  Could this ever change?  Could a community ever accept that people want to end their lives?  Perhaps, but I have a difficult time imagining family and friends peacefully allowing a healthy loved one to end his or her life.

Perpetual Utopia: Putting aside the feelings of others, can a healthy individual ever really want to end their life?  Healthy individuals are common place in suicides, but happy and healthy victims of suicide must be rare indeed, if they exist at all. As Kevinperrott eloquently wrote in the comments “ultimately, for me the most uncomfortable part of not having a finish line is no longer having the comfort of knowing that such a finish line is out of my control and I would need to take responsibility for that decision. Suicide is never a thought process those who value life are inclined to enjoy.” Even if we are somehow able to comfortably entertain suicidal thoughts, actually casting off one’s mortal coil means defying every instinct we have as living beings.  Such a mutiny not easily achieved.  Is it possible the deathless utopia we imagine of could actually be filled with ancient, bored people, miserable to go on living but too scared to take their own lives?


Gradual Uploading May Be the Answer: One reason I wish to remain biological, is that I cannot be sure an artificial body would contain my “self.”  This uncertainty was at the heart of my section exploring the real vs the unreal.  tk421 wrote a fascinating response to this question: “The way one could be sure they were not in a simulation within our current universe would obviously be via designing and applying the procedure themselves, presumably via a nanotech upgrade of their current brain, a system tried and tested by millions of years of evolution, by replacing, individually, and one by one, all the neurons… with as much attention taken as possible to replicate the original behaviors.”  A few days later, Dick Pelletier (aka futuretalk) wrote a post about nearly the same thing.  I found myself much more comfortable with the idea of nanotech gradually replacing my neurons than I was with a sudden upload.  Such a gradual procedure mirrors, as tk421 says,  natural cellular replacement.  Also, in theory, if the process is gradual, I would be able to sense the changes and stop the whole thing if I felt my “self” being compromised or I did not like the effects.  Yet, this may be wishful thinking.  It is possible my “self” could be instantly replaced at any moment in the procedure and I may not even know it.  Gradual does not necessarily mean safe.

All questions of real vs unreal are very difficult to discuss because they are by definition subjective.  madsci23 observed, “Let’s face it, we’re already living in a simulation.  Perhaps the software is running on meat instead of a silicon or computronium based substrate but the end result is the same..”  I wholeheartedly agree, but am I right in thinking that transformation from a biological interface to a synthetic one requires a tremendous leap of faith?

Towards a Safe Serendipity Perhaps my conclusions more most far flung in my exploration of serendipity versus control. For I find myself, once again, agreeing with madsci23 who commented, “I agree with you that humans have tried to replace randomness with purposeful intent where it has been efficient to do so but I disagree with the extremes you come to based on that assumption. For one thing, I don’t think it’s necessary to completely eliminate chance in order to preserve my existence anymore than I think ‘living on the edge’ adds anything of real significance to my life.  A little serendipity adds wonder to the world but a life that is so capricious that at any moment you might drop out of existence is a bit too neurotic for my tastes.” I now think it unlikely that we will achieve such a strangle-hold of control that we will live in a static universe. Serendipity, though less dangerous, will remain.  Although, I do think it important, that as our technological power increases, the scientific community continuously debates what actually should be controlled. For instance, how much do we really need to control the weather? Preventing level five hurricanes would save lives, but perhaps we should leave non catastrophic weather patterns alone.

The Death of Birth The first comment made by AJ011 addressed a concern that had crossed my mind, but I had not written about: “From a philosophical perspective, maybe from a logical one, I see extending life as extending everything we enjoy in life (and everything we don’t). That seems too indulgent and selfish or ultimately wrong as we have accepted again and again that we will die.”  When I think about this meme, I do tend to feel immortality is at least a little, if not very, selfish.  Don’t we need to die to make room for new life?  If we live for say, 1,000 years, haven’t we consumed the resources of about 13 generations beyond our own?  I realize by asking this, I sound suspiciously like extreme Catholics who seem to yell “Every sperm is sacred!” but I think my concern for future generations is valid.  Could the death of death mean the death of birth?  With our bodies forever young, will many of us still feel the need to have new young?  How dreadfully static would the world be without newcomers?  And if we do continue to have children who would also be immortal, what is to prevent us from eventually reproducing unchecked until we are, as the saying goes, “up to our ears” in each other.”  Probably it would never get quite that bad.  But, obviously, overpopulation is a concern.  And I am skeptical that even if nanotech eventually provides us with unending abundances of food and goods it will solve all the problems.  Wouldn’t space eventually reach an astronomical premium?  Do we really want to be that much more stacked on top of each other than we already are?

In the end, I find that it is neither possible nor desirable to reach conclusions in this discussion.  The debate is young and will doubt continue indefinitely.  Personally, I would like to hear more ideas about how we could extremely extend lifespans while living in harmony with the environment and continue having children.  I would be very interested to hear from those who do not feel a conflict in identity when considering becoming artificial.  Also, though those who commented were generally somewhat uncomfortable with immortality, it is interesting to point out that 90.91% of those who participated in the poll indicated they were not uncomfortable.  I encourage those that are comfortable with the idea to comment.  Were you always comfortable with the idea, or did it take some time to get there?

Thanks again to all the commenters who have made this discussion so interesting and informative.  Keep sharing your ideas as this is a very important discussion.

Comment Thread (9 Responses)

  1. In the end, I find that it is neither possible nor desirable to reach conclusions in this discussion. The debate is young and will doubt continue indefinitely. Personally, I would like to hear more ideas about how we could extremely extend life-spans while living in harmony with the environment and continue having children.

    Ideally, I think that once that we can extend our lives for however long we want, we will then be able to focus on other problems with the environment and scientific advancement to the point where we are using minimal resources. Then, terraforming Mars or expansion into space will be essential for our survival and exploration (Stephen Hawkings believes this is the next step in human evolution).

    However, our mortality consumes a lot of our time, mentally and physically. It takes a lot of maintenance to keep ourselves alive, makes us do irrational things which we end up regretting and religion has become almost tied to social progress and politics.. Maybe we could fix a lot of things if we overcame some of these hang ups.

    Posted by: Covus   September 05, 2008
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  2. While these are all valid questions, I’d expect that the answers would be very simple coming from someone lying on their death bed.

    In such a technologically improved age, the possibilities would be endless, but I suppose boredom would still be a problem. However, the prospect of space travel certainly answers it for me. I am personally intoxicated by the possibility that I might someday witness the raw power of a singularity and explore the planets of a million suns.

    As far as the Earth goes, people will continue to live and die regardless of what progress gives us. You need look only so far as the Amish or to other tribes who choose to live in the conditions of the past.

    Overcrowding will be answered with war or emigration, much as it today.

    As for the huddled masses of the unimaginative who have no interest in living but fear death, I can only suppose some form of memory suppression will become popular, though using what process or to what ends I am unwilling to guess.

    I must answer the questions of loss of self. With the gradual ‘uploading’(though I don’t think uploading accurately describes the procedure) to upgraded neurons, you may retain continuity of consciousness but suffer slight or extreme changes in behavior due to the slight differences in operation of the replaced neurons.

    I’m afraid I’m slowly getting the reputation of an irretrievable bore.

    Posted by: tk421   September 05, 2008
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  3. @tk421 – Just as the inferior species dies out, so will those who do not extend their lives. It is evolution in the making. For those, like me, who are young and realize the implications of such technology, are already preparing.

    Of course, this all could be hot air and nothing will materialize within this century, but it is fascinating to talk about.

    Posted by: Covus   September 06, 2008
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  4. Unless they bred prodigiously, as the religious often do, and survive on the grace of the post-humans.

    Personally, I’m trying to take up programming, but as someone in his second decade, I’m a bit late on the draw. In essence, I’m wagering my life and liberty on the end of a rainbow.

    Posted by: tk421   September 07, 2008
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  5. @tk421 – You are never to old to learn something new, and with all this extra time on our hands why not take the time to experience everything?

    If I assume you’re in your 20’s like I am, I just graduated college but I have decided to do something different. Hell, I might go to graduate school too. Things might be accelerating but it is taking more and more time to prepare for careers or launch them.

    :)

    Posted by: Covus   September 07, 2008
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  6. @tk421 – P.S I also hope to be one of those “post-humans,” too.

    Posted by: Covus   September 07, 2008
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  7. Covus—I Really like the idea that once we overcome mortality we will concentrate more energy on solving environmental and social problems. I think you are probably right. My fear is that the lust for power will still dominate, but probably even it would be tempered in a world where one had little to fear of scarcity or death.

    As for your comment that extended life span will be some sort of evolutionary step, I am unsure. It will not be a genetic change, but a technological one, so I guess it depends on your definition of evolution. Also, evolution does not care how long you live as long as you breed.

    tk421—I think it is lazy thinking to think war or emigration will solve the problems of population. Neither has solved the problem. Nor is it desirable at all for war to “solve” the problem.

    You are correct. Perhaps gradual replacement of neurons may cause extreme changes in behavior and personality. I assume we will find this out as the technology develops and experiments are done.

    Posted by: Mielle Sullivan   September 08, 2008
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  8. Thank you for such a wonderful post. Again I applaud your willingness to critically examine your belief systems in such a public fashion and wish you the best of luck in developing your stance on radical life extension. For my part, I’ve tried to summarize your concerns below and provide some feedback on my posistion on these questions that I hope you find useful.

    The “Make Room for the Youngsters” Argument: I think this really encompasses two lines of thought that ought to be addressed seperately. First, there is the legitamate concern regarding overpopulation and resource depletion associated with greatly extended average lifespans. As others have already stated, the best way of handling this is to simply get more resources. Colonization of under utilized terrestrial regions (i.e. oceans, sky, etc.) as well as eventual migration/expansion into the rest of the solar system (and eventually beyond) is unquestionably the optimal path to addressing resource scarcity. Pondering radical life extension may bring a greater sense of immediacy to this need but, to be fair, the problem exists whether or not average lifespans ever increase. World population is growing far faster than the world death rate and, since I don’t think any sane person would propose that we limit medical treatments or cease researching cures for disease in order to limit population growth, our species will have to find new ways to meet our resource needs one way or another. Perhaps radical life extension will be a much needed impetuous to spur new, creative approaches to solving this problem. The second line of thought is focused on the idea that, without new minds to generate fresh prespectives, our culture will stagnate. Though I agree with this idea in principle, I think it’s important to point out that “new minds” doesn’t necessarily imply “new humans”. Artifical life forms, human cognitive enhancement, artifical cognitive enhancement of other species, and goodness knows what else will all complement traditional human procreation to create a rich tapestry of new and unique perspectives. I can’t imagine there ever being a lack of new, creative ideas to fill me with awe and wonder regardless of how long I live.

    The “No Way To End the Boredom other than that Icky Suicide Buisness” argument: First of all, this implys that there would eventually come a time when a well adjusted, healthy individual would want to die out of sheer boredom. Personally, I think this possiblity is exceedingly remote. As I mentioned above, the future is going to be more alive with possibilities and ideas than we can ever currently imagine – literally. Cognitive enhancement will allow us to eventually conveive of the universe in ways as far removed from our current thought proccesses as socio-political theory is to a clam. For the sake of argument, however, let’s consider that there will come a time that, out of sheer boredom, I cannot fathom continuing to exist. Why choose something as final as suicide? Why not warm biostasis for a hundred or a thousand years? After all, things change and maybe something will tickle my fancy again one day. If not, I could just “go back under” for a few more centuries.

    The “Will ‘I’ still be ‘Me’?” argument: There is definately a real concern in changing the substrate of one’s mind. While a personality construct that reasons, feels, and acts just like me is arguablly better than nothing, I am under no illusions that it would actually be me. What needs to be avoided is any “turn this thing on then turn YOU off” style uploading. As tk421 pointed out, a gradual shift in substrate allows for a continuity of self and provides for the ability to cease the procedure if you feel yourself slipping away. This certainly seems like a reasonable and practical approach though it, of course, in no way answers the question of whether or not another medium can even support Mind in the first place. That question, unfortunately, cannot currently be empirically determined though the preponderance of circumstantial evidence does seem to indicate that there is nothing particularly special about neural tissue that would prevent its functional replication in another medium. While “I” certainly am intimately related to my brain, I don’t think that “I” am my brain. I think, rather, that I’m a complex phenomena that arises from the properties of my brain and, as such, can theoretically arise from the properties of some other medium as well.

    Posted by: madsci23   September 09, 2008
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  9. Thank you again, madsci23, for giving your input.

    I had not thought of new minds coming from anywhere but a new human mind. You may be right. However, I hope we always have at least a few new human minds being born every once in while. Also, colonization does seem a reasonable solution to the space/resource problem and I don’t see why it wouldn’t happen eventually.

    The more I think about it, the more I think the boredom will be an unlikely cause for suicidal thoughts in the future. I guess part of why I bring up suicide and the trouble with it, is that I just have such a hard time imagining a truly indefinite lifespan. I boggles my mind. I guess that is to be expected. At least I am not alone, others have pointed out that no one may want to live forever. I just want to point we may never want to kill ourselves either. But, again, I think you are right, an expanding universe of knowledge will give us plenty to do, think and discover.

    As to the self question. I agree that I am not my brain but rather a complex phenomena that arises from my brain. But I doubt I will want to be “housed” in anything other than my brain. Once we have the ability to experiment on a gradual shift in substrate, I assume we will learn a great deal. I don’t know, though, if it will be enough for me personally. It’s just too subjective, I doubt anyone will be able to prove to me I will remain myself.

    Posted by: Mielle Sullivan   September 10, 2008
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