I once read a quote by John Cottingham, a philosopher famous in the field, and perhaps out of the field, of philosophy, about philosophy and the meaning of life. To paraphrase, it went something like; “People are often drawn to philosophy to find answers to the big questions. If someone finds themselves reading philosophy hoping to find an answer to the question “What is the meaning of life?”, they will most likely be sorely disappointed.” I would have to agree.
It is this thought people should have in mind when reading about immortality and what philosophy may have to say about it. Philosophy does from time to time discuss the subject, though usually this discussion is about the morality of such a concept, rather than the ability to actually achieve it.Bernard Williams, for example, was a sceptic of the desirability of immortality, claiming, rightly, I think, that any form of ever-lasting life whatsoever would eventually become intolerable to the point of torture, because no kind of life imaginable, even a life of bliss, could be enjoyable over an infinite period of time. This seems correct to me. Say you love drinking Brooklyn lager, eating huevos rancheros, listening to Bob Dylan, surfing, sky-diving, skiing, whatever, and this constitutes bliss to you, and imagine trying to enjoy these activities over an infinite period of time. As enjoyable those things may be, they don’t seem desirable over such a time period. Perhaps when discussing the desirability of immortality it would be better to say that the human life-span is not long enough, and rather than living forever, it would be desirable for humans to live longer and so to enjoy more life experiences.
So this is the kind of discussion one can have with a philosopher when you have questions about immortality. What then of the actual ability to live forever, and not just an analysis of the concept?
The answers here too may give the ageing billionaire, anxious to extend his time on the mortal coil at any monetary cost, little solace.
It seems to me that there are three different ways we might achieve immortality, though perhaps none of them may be satisfying to someone wanting simply to live for longer;
- Create something that will outlive yourself (a work of art, for example)
- Perform some kind of exploit, the memory of which will outlive yourself (a sporting achievement, for example
- Or have children, thus reproducing your own genetic code in another individual
One of the most obvious things about this, which our ageing billionaire would surely notice right away, is that all of these are at best temporary (even the best novel will eventually be forgotten, the greatest achievement out-done and the healthiest child will grow into old age and die). Also, it is not the individual itself which is continued, just somethingabout the individual.
So then where might the billionaire turn? Computer science might be a good start, as computer scientists are predicting that what they call the singularity is on its way. The singularity is the point at which computers become more intelligent than humans and create computers more intelligent than themselves, which in turn create computers more intelligent than themselves and so on (an excellent way to find out more about this is to listen to the Philosophy Bites interview with David Chalmers on the issue) The implication here is that a human mind could them somehow be uploaded onto a computer and in principle survive as long as the computer could maintain itself. This is not a new idea and perhaps comes as no surprise, having been the subject of many a sci-fi film/book. What is surprising is how close this event may be: 2045. This is the date that Raymond Kurzweil, futurist and artificial intelligence enthusiast, has predicted humanity will achieve this, if only our billionaire can hang on that bit longer!
So if you want to be immortal, talk to a computer scientist. If you then want to know if such a thing is a good idea, talk to a philosopher. I recommend the latter.
Computationalism in the Philosophy of Mind by Gualtiero Piccinini
Philosophical Issues in Neuroimaging by Colin Klein