Death shapes our lives. The knowledge that our time is running out lights a fire beneath us, forcing us to achieve our goals, form relationships, and create something to leave behind. Death is like a guardian angel, driving our decisions and making sure we live a full life before it’s our time to pass. But it is also our greatest enemy. For all of history, we have been seeking ways to avoid death. For example, Qin Shin Huan Di, the first emperor of China, drank mercury because he believed it would grant him immortality. Ironically, this very elixir killed him.
Today, the quest for immortality continues. Scientists are developing several options for technological fusion, such as uploading memories into an unaging casing, keeping the human brain in a robotic body, and, most popularly, integrating nanobots into the human body and brain, allowing problems at the microscopic level to be fixed as soon as they begin. Leading minds in Silicon Valley, including Google cofounder Sergey Brin and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, have invested money, expressed interest in or stated outright that they desire immortality. Some, like Aubrey de Grey, a leading advocate for immortality, insist that aging is a disease that must be cured. “The reason we have an imperative, we have a duty, to [stop aging] as soon as possible is to give future generations a choice,” said De Grey in conversation with Sherwin Nuland, author of How We Die. “People are entitled, have a human right, to live as long as they can; people have a duty to give people the opportunity to live as long as they want to.”
However, the unpredictability of immortality obviously creates several moral issues. Death is a central but subtle part of our lives. There is no way to know exactly how the lack of it would affect the human race. “Immortality changes the very nature of human interaction,” said the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi, the director of the Ethics Initiative at the MIT Media Lab and an ordained Buddhist monk. “Part of the reason that we tend to deeply care for and deeply love one another is that we know those people won’t be there forever...we cherish the limited time we have together.”
What is the value of life if it never ends? “If we were immortal, we wouldn’t get out of bed. We’d have no reason to,” said Priyadarshi. “When Death is Good for Life,” a study published in Personality and Social Psychology Review, found that “the awareness of mortality can motivate people to enhance their physical health and prioritize growth-oriented goals; live up to positive standards and beliefs; build supportive relationships and encourage the development of peaceful, charitable communities; and foster open-minded and growth-oriented behaviors.”
But it’s no secret that immortality might have equally unpredictable benefits too. Multiple studies have shown that awareness of mortality increases in-group preference and out-group hate. An Atlantic article by Hans Villarica about terror management theory asks readers to remember their childhood fears. Many will remember monsters, the dark, and deep waters. All of these could cause harm and, potentially, death. A child’s security net is their parents. With age, fears take a more abstract form and the expectation of safety shifts from the parents onto the culture. When reminded of their mortality, people lean back onto the culture that has protected them thus far. Some experts attribute the increased political polarization in our society since 9/11 to this theory. Without the fear of mortality, therefore, perhaps it will be possible that we will also stop fearing people different from us.
As life extension technology continues to evolve and the possibility of immortality becomes more realistic, we must seriously ask ourselves—what, ultimately, is the reason for immortality? Some, like de Grey, suggest that humans have a right to experience life at the maximum. But perhaps living life to the maximum isn’t about quantity—rather, it’s a matter of quality.
“Very rarely can you say that somebody used all 70 or 80 years of their lives meaningfully,” Priyadarshi points out. “People want immortality simply because they don’t want to die.”