We’ll never be immortal, no matter the technological progress. Here’s why
First of all, I want to clarify that you should not interpret this statement as a pessimistic, nihilistic or depressing outlook of the future. This is not the intention.
I am well aware, as much as you, of the technological progress that we’re experiencing in our days and the happily increasing average lifetime duration. And I’m also waiting in line next to you for the technological singularity to come, where we’ll be able to upload our brains into the digital realm and supposedly live forever. Heck, we could even store away some backups of our brain for a rainy day; you never know when it might come in handy.
But it’s not the technological capability that I’m doubting will deprive us of the ability to be immortal. No, this is almost a given in my opinion. It’s not a matter of if, but of when.
Instead, what I want to emphasize is that in my opinion there is a fundamental principle that underpins our whole existence and will prove the blocker. There is a primordial rule that holds true across civilizations, across technological boundaries, even across the cosmos and is incompatible with immortality. And because of that, we will never truly reach this goal. And this principle has to do with the way intelligence emerges & grows.
For intelligence to grow, we need three items to be in place:
- We need a suitable medium to build the intelligence onto; let’s call it a brain
- We need a dense series of well timed & targeted stimuli that through experience will build intelligence; let’s call it education (whether it is the formal one, or whether it’s just living in the school of life)
- And finally we need death! This last one seems the odd one in the list, so we’ll spend the next few paragraphs to elaborate why it’s also one of the fundamental components for growing intelligence
The necessity of death comes from the way education works. Education builds knowledge incrementally. It stacks knowledge one on top of the other, to build a tower that will take you onto higher and higher intellectual levels. And the way you structure those bricks at the foundation, and thoughout, makes a big difference onto where this tower will start leaning towards. Once you place those blocks and you build on top of them, it’s almost impossible to remove them or else all the structure will collapse as a Jenga tower via its own weight. In other words, as you accumulate knowledge, your mind gets more and more narrow on that perspective, as the blocks you set in that area predetermine the way you can build up on top of them. As Kenneth Burke said it: “a way of seeing is a way of not seeing”.
Due to this, some schools of thought, some paradigms, might be totally unreachable by one method of education, but well within reach by another (think for example Western vs Eastern philosophy). And this stems from the way neural connections are built. Whether we like it or not, neurons structure predictive pathways as layers around the driving pockets. The more you learn on an area, the thicker the amount and complexity of neural layers around it. You are able to resolve very quickly most out-of-context situations related to it, and act to deactivate the driving pocket with great success. In some ways, your mind is already set on how to interpret any incoming stimuli and how it should react. These are precious neural connections that were build painstakingly across the years and the brain is designed not to let them go easily (especially if this driving pocket gets activated regurarly). In other words, you cannot unlearn what you have learned and thus it’s very difficult to unthink the way you were nurtured into thinking.
To be able to produce something completely novel that takes a totally different approach, you don’t just need a new perspective and a new idea. You need a totally different person. You need a brain that was built from the ground up with different experiences and thus forged different neural pathways.
Therefore the variety that education delivers is of paramount importance. It may seem as a waste of time, to put people repeat again and again the same topics to children, year after year, each with his/her own skill and perspective on things… Some could theorize that there is great room for improvement (for “disruption” as it’s called in business terms) in education. You could put in place a method that first finetunes till perfection content delivery (wording, order of concepts, repetition, timing, practical application) and then industrialize it with technology (think of a perfectly preset VR experience for the first years of life). But such a concept would be dangerous!!
We need variety, we need randomness, we need different experiences, we need provocative thinking & opinions, we need to let everybody grow into a unique personality and follow her/his own path. Because you cannot really judge in advance where the useful novelties will come from.
They are out of our mind’s reach by design (else they wouldn’t be classified as novelties) and you cannot judge in advance their usefulness because you don’t have a well-developed frame of reference to compare them against. You need to let them develop naturally and judge them by their merit once they reach their full potential. For intelligence to grow, education needs to be diverse & omni-directional.
Having established that, we’ve now reached the obstacle against immortality! Because of this particularity of education, death is the final ingredient for an ever growing, ever diverse pool of intelligent minds that build on top of each other! For the very simple reason that there is no room for everybody.
You cannot have people live forever, because once society allows that, you need fast to start tackling the question of where you’ll have to put everybody, how you will feed them, and what kind of controls you intend to deploy on birth rates. That final bit is crucially important.
If your population grows uncontrollably on this planet, given the fact that you have finite resources, energy consumption will start outgrowing energy harvesting and you will risk running out of usable energy, which will be detrimetral to the whole civilization. You can try thought technological progress to delay this imbalance, but sooner or later you will not be able to keep up with the rate of population increase and you’ll need to set limits to new births. If things get uncontrollable, you might even have to pause it entirely!
Should be no biggie, right? In any case, everybody gets to live forever, so they shouldn’t complain. Sure, some people will never experience the joy of bringing a new child into the world, but they have an eternity in front of them to enjoy all the other pleasures of life. But, in essence what you have done is limited the influx of new ideas into your intelligence pool.
Existing minds are set in their ways, and will become more & more as decades go by. New minds will not appear, completely fresh perspectives will not have the opportunity to be developed, in essence progress on the growth of intelligence will have been halted. This seemingly beneficial attribute, immortality, brings about the end of ground-breaking progress.
Some might say that this isn’t such a huge problem, we don’t need to grow our intelligence much more, we’re good at where we are, we’re the most intelligent species on Earth. I honestly think that the most fundamental attribute of this universe is that it gives rise to a constant increase of organizational complexity, and its pinnacle at the moment is what we describe now as intelligence. Therefore we cannot go against this trend, because it will overpass us.
Even history of this planet has shown us that many species and many civilizations were overpassed by others, once they became more advanced. In some cases it took time, but it always happened. And the previous one faded into insignificance.
It might be a human faction that will decide to avoid immortality on purpose, to gain an edge over the rest, it might be a different species or an alien civilization (as far fetched as it sounds). It will take time, but, inevitably in my opinion, when you stop progress, when you stop evolving in cosmological time, somebody else will surpass you. In other words, it’s a losing strategy and everybody else has incentives to switch, in order to come out in front.
If we acknowledge that new lives need to be created from scratch to get the benefits of education, then the only way to “save” immortality is to tackle the issue of having enough resources, from here to infinity.
Here we need to touch a bit more on the topic of digital lives, and the idea that living them is kinda free…
For sure transcending into digital will someday become a reality and greatly extend our lifespan, but it doesn’t really tackle the issue with resources. It’s like buying a much more fuel-efficient car, let’s say 10x the original fuel efficiency. It can take you much longer distances, but at some point in time you will run out of gas and will need to refill. The same is true with the digital existence; it could be a much lower upkeep/maintenance form of existence, but even these much fewer resources still translate to energy that needs to be have been harvested, in order to be consumed. Little, yes, but not zero. So somebody will have to provide this energy. True, those digital lives can work for themselves, but if you keep piling up more & more such existences their numbers will grow polynomially. And after some point, society in general or the ones controlling it will start wondering why does the world need to keep tackling bigger & bigger logistical issues to keep those digital souls “alive”. They might decide to “degrade” their experience, or even just switch them off entirely.
Others will say that for such a technologically advanced civilization that tackled singularity, it has also probably managed to become spacefaring. Therefore, it can roam the galaxy consuming its vast resources, without need to “kill” the old lives. If resources are the problem, then the galaxy is full of them. But still, this doesn’t solve the problem, it just buys time (true, potentially a lot of it). But civilizations compete.
And the one that will decide to carry the “dead weight” of those “spent lives” will be outmatched by the ones that won’t make such a choice. And this could potentially lead to their eradication, or at minimum their decline.
Another idea is that the general populace may indeed need to die in the name of progress, but some few very rich and very powerful individuals might decide to live forever, as an exception. It’s true that this is a probable scenario and possibly an exception to the rule. Still, such a scenario, even if it happens, cannot be as widespread as you might think. And the reason is that, for this exception to be sustained in perpetuity, you need either a lot of obscurity or vast amounts of power in society. The first is probably impractical, though for all we know the Highlander might still be alive as we speak. And the latter may not be sustainable. Indeed, maximum control to enforce maximum stability (in the power structures that maintain immortality for the selected few) is the complete opposite of progress and thus it falls back to the same problems we mentioned earlier about lack of evolution. And if you allow change, somewhere, somehow, someone will capitalize on it and turn the tables, thus ending the power grip that was the prerequisite for this selective immortality.
Finally, another idea that would try to salvage immortality would be to use an educational method that takes drastic measures onto fully developed brains and actively tries to repartition them, to change their foundations and allow them to be built towards other “rooftops”. In other words, it tries to defy the statement that human mind become inflexible as they age, and puts faith on our ability to reengineer ourselves. Assuming that such a technological feat can be done, it will still be too pervasive and impactful. You will not wake up the same person after such an operation. It will not be just a new language that you will unlearn or learn through mind engineering. Or even if it is, it doesn’t solve the problem. Because knowledge and ability is not just about a set of skills like flying a helicopter. Even if you were able to “chop off” such a skill from a brain and remove it or transplant it to another person, or rearchitect it, it would not be groundbreaking enough to secure uninhibited novelty towards higher levels of intelligence.
No, you would need to go deeper and edit fundamental properties of a person’s personality & related childhood experiences. But by doing that to yourself, you would not be the same person anymore. Therefore, with this method your conscious self would not be able to live forever. True, you might be able to have some long-lived “cousins”, but they would not be the same as you. And because the same restriction will apply also to them, sooner or later they will have to be further altered by this reengineering process, deviating even further from the original “you” and thus pushing more and more your original self into oblivion. I wouldn’t call that immortality if I were you.
To conclude, the comment of today’s essay is that life is diverse, random and ever-renewing and this allows for intelligence to grow. If you stop fueling the fire with new sparks, the fire will gradualy fade away. And that’s why death is a necessary evil towards this goal and therefore the dream of immortality can never be reached in a sustainable manner. We will all die someday, and that’s ok. It all serves a purpose in the grand scheme of things. Eventually…