Is Immortality GOOD or BAD?

Living forever: Is it worth it?

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Apr 17 2015, 6:30pm

Image: ​Mike Steele/Flickr

All week, ​we've been exploring all the different ways humans are trying to extend life, to digitize it, to push off the specter of death, either for a little while, or forever. The research is happening, and it's something the science is moving toward. But let's just consider for a moment: Is immortality GOOD or BAD?

Living forever is GOOD

Where did we get the idea that the longer life is, the less meaningful it becomes? Why do some people seem so adamant that continuing on—and foregoing the all-too-fast downward trudge of mental and physical degradation we currently deem acceptable—is such a bad thing?

In 1900, the average American lived to 47 year​s old. By 2000, they live​d to 76. Are middle-aged people today twiddling their thumbs, wishing they could speed through the next few decades and get them over with? Do those pushing 100 feel like they've been dealt a bad hand?

I don't think, once the illnesses of old age are solved, that there'll ever be a convenient moment for most of us to be snatched away into non-existence. You might believe it's inevitable, but that doesn't mean it won't seem unjust when it happens. You will not have checked off all the items on your bucket list. You won't have visited all the places you promised you'd go. You will never finish Infinite Jest.

It seems only natural that, on some basic level, we should agree that living longer is a good thing. It's what we strive towards with each medical advance, after all. And if you don't think we should work to live as long as possible, where's your cut-off line? Reaching a point where we can live for as long as we want seems like a pretty natural conclusion. Immortality doesn't seem like such a big ask.

I get that living forever can seem scary; the unknown is. But that fear often seems to stem from a very limited picture of the immediate future, usually based on short-term predictions by a few individuals (I blame Ray Kurzweil). I don't think that living forever has to mean freezing your brain in a box or becoming a sentient robot. And hey, if we make the odd misstep here or there, we've got forever to figure out the kinks.

Are you going to give up eternal life at the prospect of a few awkward transitional decades? Consider it the new teenage-hood. You'll miss those years when they're gone!

There will certainly be challenges to overcome if humans start living indefinitely; overcrowding and inequality springing to mind as two of the most obvious. But while it's easy to predict those problems getting worse—and I'm certainly not saying they won't—it works the other way too.

With more time to tackle these issues, we can keep working on them. I don't know the solutions yet—maybe we'll live on Mars, maybe we'll leave our meatbags and store ourselves in the cloud—but that's the whole excitement of living to see the ever-changing future: We can keep trying things and learning and pushing for improvement.

That's another basic thing that the doom-and-gloom, death-is-preferable-to-the-future crowd seem to misunderstand. The world won't just stay the same, with everyone trudging along in a state of boredom; it'll keep changing. There'll be new stuff to do because we'll keep making new stuff. We'll get those jetpacks we were promised, and that's just the start.

In the end, I suppose that with the lack of true insight into the future we have so far, your position on the issue right now largely comes down to your general outlook on life, whether that life be extended or cut short. Sure, bad things will happen if you live forever. Some of them will be very bad. But bad things will happen in your current lifetime. That doesn't mean it's not worth living.

And just maybe you can picture a future—a whole bunch of different moments in the future, even—that are worth sticking around for. We see things they'll never see.

-Vicki Turk, UK editor

Living forever is BAD

Death sounds scary. But you know what sounds even scarier? Never dying. Permanent, irreversible existence. That sounds positively TERRIFYING. Why would anyone want to live forever? Immortality is BAD.

Where to even begin? For starters, living forever would be awfully boring. Imagine you've found a way to beat death—by uploading your ~consciousness~ to a computer, by replacing you​r heart with an artificial one, by cryogenically freezing yourself, by throwing faith and money at whatever technology promises to make you immortal. An expansive horizon of potential experiences now lies before you, and you've got an unlimited amount of time to, well, experience those experiences. You can read every word ever written! You can finally learn to play the violin! You can build a super yacht and sail the oceans! What a time to be alive…forever! You've got it made, right?

Wrong. You've only got it made for the amount of time it takes to see and do everything. Because at some point, there will be nothing left to see and do. You'll have done it all. You'll have read every word ever written. You'll have mastered the violin. You'll have sailed every inch of water, if there is any water left in THE FUTURE. You'll grow bored, and then bored-er. At that point it'll just be you and your brainbox forced to go on existing, confided to the mind-numbing maw of having nothing to do. At least dying naturally shakes things up a bit.

Meanwhile, conditions here on planet Earth will get shittier, and shittier, and shittier for you and whoever else had the gall to want to live forever. It will get hotter. The oceans will continue to rise. There will be war, food shortages, and disease. Robots will possibly take over. If immortality is your wish, then you must come to grips with the fact you're going to be living forever in Hell, basically. Why would anyone want to live in that world?

We can leave this rock for another. We can colonize Mars! Or venture into intergalactic space, scouting for and settling Earth 2.0! That might very well happen. We may have no choice but to leave Earth, someday. But there is always the possibility that the next rock we land on will be shittier than the one we're already on. And if it isn't shitty when we arrive we'll make it a wasteland soon enough, because apparently that's how we do.

From there, we'll be forced to do it all over again. Once we've thoroughly gutted Earth 2.0, we'll have to go looking for Earth 3.0, and then Earth 4.0, 5.0, and on and on, ad infinitum. You and the rest of the immortals will face an oblivion that's miserable beyond our wildest dreams.

The point, here, is that the transhumanist dream of beating death is one of the bigger crocks of 1 Percenter horseshit I've ever heard. There is such hubris in wanting to live forever. Such entitlement. It's takes a certain pompousness to think, for whatever reason, that one's existence is so critical, so important, that one deserves—one must—exist forever. Immortality flies right in the face of what it means to be human, which is to say, a meatsack with an expiration date.

When someone says they're not afraid of anything because they're going to live forever, I call bullshit. You want to live forever precisely because you're afraid of dying. Death sounds scary, yes. It's death, after all. Dying should give you some anxiety. But what are you afraid of? Dying a natural death is OK. It's, ya know, natural. It's what's supposed to happen.

I'm not scared of anything, either, which is precisely why I've come to terms with my mortality as some sort of next step. I don't know what that is, but I'll be ready when my time comes. And I hope you will be too.

-Brian Anderson, Features editor

Goodbye, Meatbags is a series on Motherboard about the waning relevance of the human physical form. Follow along her​e.​