Is it feasible to defeat natural aging and mortality through technology? The answer would depend on a clear understanding of why senescence occurs naturally and the role of mortality in the larger evolutionary scheme. That is a very interesting and complex topic I hope to embrace in future blog posts. A different question is whether it is desirable to cheat aging and death. And that question can be further subdivided. One might wonder, for example, about the negative social and ecological consequences of accumulating immortal bodies. But the usual rationale for life extension is to prolong personal consciousness. Here I will talk about why the prospect of living indefinitely has little appeal for me personally.
For some people the end of life and consciousness is terrifying. Others simply assume that consciousness doesn’t end with death because it doesn’t depend on the life of the body. Or, they may believe it can be artificially distilled from the brain and kept going somehow after the brain dies. For these people, their consciousness is intrinsically rewarding, an end in itself. I agree that consciousness is a marvel of the universe to be cherished, integral with the mystery of existence. I am pleased to think of it as a phenomenon that will continue to exist in the brains of other people after I am long gone. But such appreciation is distinct from any personal wish for my individual consciousness to persist indefinitely. Like fine art and beautiful women, one can appreciate consciousness without feeling driven to possess it.
The traditional notions of immortality make little sense to me, for they have nothing to do with the life of the body. On the contrary, I believe that all perception, feeling, and thought are functions of the body and have no meaning without it. What could pain or pleasure be to a bodiless spirit? What would a disembodied spirit do, and why would it do anything? If such a consciousness were possible, it could be nothing like the experience of living human beings. No, I prefer to think that consciousness is a biological function like breathing, which ceases with the death of the body.
Perhaps technology will one day enable us to indefinitely renew the body (which includes the brain, of course). After all, some body parts can already be replaced, as in organ transplants and hip replacements. The brain too can deteriorate and malfunction, and perhaps it will be possible to replace parts of it or augment it with artificial add-ons. But would this renovated or enhanced person still be me? If not, why should it be preferred to a brand new person who starts life afresh? What is so special about this “me”? Would it be worthy of preservation because of accumulated knowledge, experience, and wisdom from which society could benefit? (Who listens presently to the wisdom of elders, if in their dotage they are wise at all?) Or would it seek to carry on merely out of habit or instinct?
Perhaps technology will offer some way to preserve consciousness in a disembodied state. I doubt it, however, because neither the body nor consciousness can be captured in a computer program. Hence, I doubt that it will ever be feasible to upload a mind or personality (one’s consciousness) to live a perpetual virtual life in cyberspace (i.e., in a computer). But even if it were possible, would that existence be heaven or hell? Since I hold my consciousness to be a sort of natural virtual reality that serves my real body, I cannot see the point of an artificial consciousness that serves nothing real.
The question of personal continuity obviously hinges on what it means to be a conscious self. In my view, my consciousness is no thing that can live apart from my body, but a bodily function like digestion or breathing. It serves cognition and control by interfacing with the world. “I” am that function of my body, and “you” are that function of yours! There is no “me” apart from this body and no basis to believe in life for it after death; but neither is there a reason to fear either personal disappearance or punishment after death. There is no soul in a metaphysical sense, with past or future lives, only DNA that carries forth into future generations. Since one’s consciousness and sense of self are no more than bodily functions, selfhood grants no special entitlement to exist forever or apart from the body. For its own reasons, society might value some bodies or some minds more than others. In nature’s scheme, however, a body is temporary and so is the consciousness that one calls oneself.
Fear of death has a rational basis to protect the body. It makes biological sense to be attached to the survival and well-being of one’s physical body for its duration. I doubt that it makes biological sense for human bodies to live indefinitely. Nor would liberation from a built-in shelf life confer psychological relief from anxiety over mortality. A longer lifespan could still meet with an accidental end and there would simply be more years at stake to worry over. In any case, it is usually personal consciousness with which one identifies and that one hopes to prolong. In the view presented here, it makes no sense to be attached to one’s consciousness as though it were separate from the life of the body or could continue without it. The quest for immortality is a case of mistaken identity.
So much for rational arguments. The desire—or not—to extend one’s life is a more personal matter than reason can capture. In my stage of life, I find myself increasingly weary in mind as well as in body, and weary of the world. I look forward to a good long rest at day’s end. Perhaps if my body could be renewed I would feel differently and more optimistic about my mental prospects in a life that could still unfold. As it is, I feel it is time to begin wrapping things up. A life at its start is open-ended. Even apart from physical ageing and accruing cell damage, the natural course of a life is a narrowing process, weeding out possibilities in order to focus, to become both physically and psychologically the particular person that one is, to play a specific role. In my case, that person has developed particular skills that are useful in some ways more than others. I am no genius. If my brain could be enhanced to genius level, even with a body reset to perfect health I would actually be someone else! I have no objection to that happening, but no attachment to it either!
Perhaps I just don’t value the person I have become enough to wish for him to carry on indefinitely. Perhaps there is no clear line between a graceful resignation and a death wish. I admit I could have made better choices, wasted less time, accomplished more. Though I generously accept the doddering fool that I am, why would I want him to continue forever to take up valuable space? Merely for the chance to redeem myself at the eleventh hour? Do I honestly think I could achieve in the next fifty years what I failed to in the last? Would it not be better to let the next generation have their go at it?
While I ask myself such questions, wouldn’t I be curious to see how things turn out in fifty years, or in five hundred? Perhaps technology will make it possible for my shelved consciousness to reawaken and “drop in” from time to time to see how things are going. After all, there is already cryonics and the sci-fi dream of suspended animation during voyages to the stars. But wouldn’t that be a selfish luxury, a sort of voyeurism? It’s not that I want to participate in life fifty years from now—only to sneak a post-view, from which I could retreat back into eternal slumber if I didn’t like what I see. Such a fantasy implies consciousness without a cumbersome body to oblige participation.
Even if my achievements had been grander, my mind more adept, my energy and enthusiasm keener, my compassion, curiosity and self-love greater, I would not lack for respectable company in thinking that I am part of the natural world where life must come to an end. At age 65, David Hume passed away cheerfully without a belief in an afterlife, which he considered no more plausible than that a lump of coal on the fire would not burn. At age 71, Socrates declined the offer to escape death. Dying in the hospital at age 77, Albert Einstein refused a surgery that might have extended his life another decade. “It is tasteless to prolong life artificially,” he said. “I have done my share; it is time to go.” Though I lack the laurels of such company, I too accept that there is a time to go. I don’t wish to keep this body alive beyond its natural time, whether for its own sake or for the sake of an illusory self.