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Immortality is the concept of a condition of potentially infinite or
indeterminate lifespan. "Non-mortals" would be immune to many or all current
aspects of mortality, fragile form, poor health, and disease. Recent
research in cosmology is uncertain about the fate of the universe.
Immortality, by its purest definition, would depend entirely on the presence
of the environment wherein a being exists.
Types of immortality
Quantum immortality is the name for the speculation that the Everett
many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that a conscious
being cannot cease to be. The idea is highly controversial. Suppose a
physicist detonates a nuclear bomb next to him. In almost all parallel
universes, the nuclear explosion would vaporize the physicist. However,
there is a small set of alternate universes in which the physicist somehow
survives. The idea behind quantum immortality is that the physicist would
only be able to experience the universes in which he survives, even though
they may be a small subset of the possible universes. In this way, the
physicist would appear from his own standpoint to be living forever
Jacques Cousteau, in the preface to his book The Ocean World, expressed his
meditations on physical immortality, as a part of life and its adaptive
processes: 'Death', Cousteau states, 'is fundamental to evolution;' and
'evolution is fundamental to survival'. He concludes that, biological
speaking, 'immortality does not present a possible means to avoid death':
"Mortal or immortal, [an organism] must die."
Spiritual Immortality, on the other hand, is a belief that is expressed in
nearly every religious tradition. In both Western and Eastern religions, the
spirit is an energy or force that transcends the mortal shell, and returns
to either the heavens or the cycle of life, directly or indirectly depending
on the tradition.
Medical science, it is believed may extend human life, and some, like
Cousteau, believe that biological forms have inherent limitations to their
design; primarily their fragility, and inability to immediately morph to fit
the environment. The way around Cousteau's predicament, may someday present
itself in the ability to "exist" outside of the biological form.
Technological immortality is a concept which postulates that the biological
nature of humanity is only temporary; should technology permit, people may
circumvent death and evolution, simply by taking artificial forms.
Conceivably this could reach a point in which physical danger is nullified
Concepts of immortality
Considerations of immortality usually bring to mind the idea of unending
existence, a freedom from the concerns of annihilation and death. Often
times, talk of the immortality of the soul arises in conjunction with talk
of immortality. The ideas of science and religion find common goals in the
perpetuity of man's existence.
Unending existence is too simple a condition for immortality
As a thought experiment, suppose a doctor relates to his patient that a
strange new serum has been discovered. Upon taking this serum, all of the
standard biological processes which lead to aging are cured: (1) The effects
of reaching the end of a finite turnover of cells are no longer noted in the
patient, (2) Chromosomal aberrations cease, thus eliminating copying errors
when cells duplicate, and; (3) the accumulation of metabolic, inadvertently
destructive or post-translational errors from cell division (along with
waste products) no longer occur. The only side effect, unfortunately, is
that it uses the full gamut of sodium, potassium, and calcium ions in the
patient's brain to jump-start the serum process; the brain is destroyed
Would this strange new serum be good news? Not at all, since unending
biological functioning is not what is at issue in immortality. Ultimately,
what one desires is some sort of permanent preservation of personal
identity, not just unceasing metabolic integrity.
The freedom from concerns of annihilation and death is insufficient for
Essential to many of the world's religions is a doctrine of an eternal
afterlife. But well known narratives from Christianity and Islam show why
freedom from annihilation and death could (in principle) not be desirable:
"The rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his
eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his
bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and
send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool
my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son,
remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and
likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art
tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great
gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot;
neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence."- (Luke
16:22-26 King James Bible Translation)
"Those who are wretched shall be in the Fire: There will be for them
therein (nothing but) the heaving of sighs and sobs: They will dwell
therein for all the time that the heavens and the earth endure, except
as thy Lord willeth: for thy Lord is the (sure) accomplisher of what He
planneth. And those who are blessed shall be in the Garden: They will
dwell therein for all the time that the heavens and the earth endure,
except as thy Lord willeth: a gift without break." - (The Noble Quran,
Instances from other religions could be adduced. Mere perpetual existence is
not enough. Ultimately, one desires that this existence be of a desirable quality.
When talk of a "soul" arises
When talk of a "soul" arises, immediately, concerns of psychology and
metaphysics become relevant. Suppose, as yet, another thought experiment:
An engineer produces a wondrous, new, nanotechnology machine. At two
key moments during life, he might eagerly announce, a human would step
into this device. At the first trip into the device, a full molecular
scan of all 1027 atoms (or so) in the body is recorded. At the second
trip into the device, ideally many years later, the molecular structure
is instantly dissimilated. Furthermore, during this second trip, a
reference is taken of the earlier scan, and an appropriate amount of
organic goo is added or subtracted to precisely match the configuration
of materials original to the 1027 atoms as configured at the first
scan. As an application—Jones at 30 walks in; Jones at 30 walks
out. Years later, Jones at 80 walks in; Jones (allegedly) at 30 walks
out. Has the engineer done Jones a favor?
The engineer has not done Jones a favor, even if Jones could, as it were,
"wash, rinse, and repeat" this whole cycle indefinitely. First off, it is
anything but clear that the human exiting the machine at the second trip is
Jones. Perhaps he is better labeled, Jones*. Presuming that memory is a
physiological structure encoded by neural pathways, Jones* would not
preserve the memory of Jones, since Jones* would not have the encoded neural
pathways of an 80-year-old, but only of a 30-year-old. Hence, all that Jones
was (after 30, anyway) as the collection of memory experiences upon second
entry into the device is lost; thus, Jones is effectively dead. Immortality
would offer little if the best results obtainable were a recurring coda of
Second, even if the eager engineer were to modify his machine (due to
popular demand) so as to configure all the neural pathways of Jones* to
match Jones, this would still present problems. Jones does not want a
perfect duplicate to exit the machine at the second trip, but Jones himself
wants to exit the machine. Granted, if all were done discretely, Jones'
wife, Jones' mistress, and Jones' poker buddies would think that Jones* was
Jones, and even Jones* himself might think he was Jones, but thinking that
such-n-such is true is hardly a guarantee that such-n-such really is true,
as any jilted lover can attest.
Third, the Jones/Jones* problem is at issue in religious accounts of
resurrection. Since humans share substantial quanta of their atoms with
others who have preceded them in history (i.e., coffins leak, eventually,
and nature cycles the organic material back through the biosphere), any
resurrection cannot use all the original atomic collection for each
individual to be resurrected. New material would be required; thus, worries
about a duplicate thinking that s/he was the original person arise for the
pious as well as for the pagan.
Apparently, on any account where immortality requires a remanufacture of a
body in order to maintain character identity, seemingly insurmountable
difficulties present themselves. Some views of quantum immortality approach
the general issue of immortality differently.
Some extropian futurists propose that, thanks to exponentially accelerating
computing power, it will someday be possible to "upload" human consciousness
onto a computer system, and live indefinitely in a virtual environment. This
could be accomplished via advanced cybernetics, where computer hardware
would initially be installed in the brain to help sort memory or accelerate
thought processes. Gradually more and more components would be added until
the person's entire brain functions were handled by artificial devices,
without any sharp transitions that would lead to identity issues as
mentioned above. At this point, the human body would become only an
accessory and the mind could be transferred to any sufficiently powerful
computer. A person in this state would then be essentially immortal, short
of cataclysmic destruction of the entire civilization and their computers.
Immortality, combined with benevolence, may make the person a deity
worshipped popularly, such as the Eight Immortals of China. Most often, such
people gained immortality through enlightenment by other immortals.