Immortal Illusions: Should We Stop Trying to Live Forever?

In another epoch—truly, not that long ago—common knowledge held that the earth was the center of the universe and that fiery furnace we call the sun revolved around us. The earth was the greatest mover and shaker in the cosmos. But, of course, the center would not hold.

Of more recent vintage is the hypothesis that the earth is actually just a great big creature: a mortal organism. The earth might be strong (padded with rock, loaded with magma), but it’s not like one of the gods. Rather, it’s creaturely: fragile, vulnerable. We—humans, ravenous animals—crawl around on the back of this great big creature, scraping at its tender skin. This broad claim is commonly called the Gaia Hypothesis—attributed to the British scientist James Lovelock, who advanced the theory in the 1970s. Whether or not you believe that the earth is self-contained enough to be called an organism, odds are good that you’re among the millions of humans who now share deep concern for its possible futures.

And yet, as the earth’s fragility becomes more painfully obvious, we also see the increasing popularity of the claim that the biological immortality of individual human beings has never seemed more possible. Evidence for the possibility of infinite human life extension (often called Radical Life Extension) typically points to the fabulous new technologies under development in ecologically gluttonous regions such as the United States. These developing sciences of immortality were the subject of Jonathan Weiner’s Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality (HarperCollins, 2010). He told the story of, for instance, the notorious gerontologist Aubrey de Grey who’s intent on defeating the aging process.

The irony of such quests for human immortality is that they appear to cast a blind eye to the very conditions of possibility for human life itself. All of our fabulous technologies depend upon dwindling resources that we’ve uncovered here on Earth, like the ancient waste of creatures that’s morphed into crude oil. So while futurists claim that biological immortality has never looked so possible, the only planet known to sustain biological life has never looked more creaturely. Never has the hope for immortality looked so hubristic and foolish.

In Long for This World, Jonathan Weiner ends with an homage to mortality—a celebration of finitude and its dreaded limits. Spoiler alert: Stephen Cave, author of Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization, ends his book on a similar note. Each of these authors, in other words, ends with a rousing round of feel-good immortality bashing, though Cave takes a distinctly different path than the others.

Namely, Cave broadens the frame. He’s interested in the developing sciences of immortality, to be sure, but is more interested in surveying the history of immortality across the span of centuries. The modest claim of his book is that the elusive promise of immortality has been the engine behind human achievement. “The dream of some kind of life without end is a universal feature of human experience,” he claims. “At its core, a civilization is a collection of life extension technologies: agriculture to ensure food in steady supply, clothing to stave off cold, architecture to provide shelter and safety, better weapons for hunting and defense, medicine to combat injury and disease.”

Cave proclaims that every human civilization has used one (or some combination) of four simple “immortality narratives”: staying alive, resurrection, some version of the soul, or some form of legacy. The aim of this book, he declares at the beginning, is to investigate each of these narratives in order to determine whether any of them are feasible, or credible, today. He is willing to consider the lure of immortality. The book is full of good stories: the micro-narratives within the grand scheme of immortality narratives. We cross paths with ancients like Alexander the Great and Nefertiti; we learn about moderns like the scientist Linus Pauling (an evangelist for the powers of the curative elixir we call Vitamin C); and we pay a visit to Dr. Frankenstein and his creature.

It’s easy to appreciate Cave’s general authorial sensibility. The wide-angle lens he uses to survey the history of human hopes for immortality contextualizes the apocalyptic promises that scientistic immortalists are making today. We might look back with derision on the alchemist’s quest for the magical elixir of eternal life, but in Cave’s analysis contemporary immortalists don’t look much different.

While the science of immortality might appear promising because it breaks a phenomenon like aging down into bite-size chunks that seem—individually—rather easy to solve, Cave charges these questers with a kind of myopia. Immortality engineers, “in focusing on one narrow problem, fail to notice the new problems that their solution is causing.” Cave notes, especially, their ignorance of what our quest for immortality might do to the world around us. “There is real risk that an ever-expanding population of medical immortals would push the biosphere over the edge, causing a collapse in its ability to sustain life as we know it.” Amen.

I’m skeptical, however, that Cave’s “categories” (the four simple “immortality narratives”) really hold up. Primarily, I’m skeptical of the premise that these individual narratives stand on their own so firmly that we might just pick and choose from among them, as Cave suggests we can. The line between the soul narrative and the resurrection narrative, for example, is extremely thin at points. Cave writes, for example, about modern resurrectionists, like the cryogenecists, who want to freeze their actual bodies with the hope that they might one day live again. And yet some of these are better described as “mind-uploaders”: people who are freezing just their heads, with the hope that future technology will upload the software of their minds, getting rid of the clunky hardware of their bodies and brains. Their immortal hopes, in other words, rest on the allegedly immaterial force of their minds—not unlike that of the soul. There’s something a bit arbitrary to the way Cave is lumping categories together.

But in the end, it doesn’t really matter. Cave is preparing to dismiss immortality—whole hog—all along, deeming none of the immortality narratives either credible or feasible. He advances, instead, what he calls the “Wisdom Narrative”: the counsel that we buck up and face extermination, but that we live well in the meantime. “Instead of dismissing existential anxiety by denying death,” he prefers to address “the underlying attitudes that make us think we ought to be afraid of death in the first place.”

Wisdom isn’t a new concept; Cave is making reference to biblical wisdom literature that we find in books like Proverbs and Psalms. He’s referencing Epicurus. His ideas resonate with the existentialist philosophers. In one sense, he has my sympathies. These are texts that I love. More to the point, I find the quest to enshrine the human body in some deathless form twisted, and misguided. I’ll be totally honest: I’m terrified of death. But I’m more terrified of a life without existential pressure and the exquisite melancholy that accompanies change. I’m sickened by the fact that money can buy a longer life; that those with purchasing power live more like the gods (a dystopic future depicted, coincidentally, in the recent blockbuster In Time, where life extension can be bought and sold—and stolen). 

But I don’t necessarily agree with Cave that the best option we have is to dismiss all immortal hopes entirely. All immortality narratives, as Cave puts it, are “illusions.” This makes them, he seems to suggest, completely worthless. I’m not so quick to dismiss imaginative fancy. Not all illusions are equal. Some bear the quality of a nightmare (a deathless human body, for example), but some are sweet tonics.

What if, for example, it were possible for the big, wild planet that we live on to keep living and living and living? What if some kind of human creatures could keep crawling around on it—forever? It would be foolish to make a lie of mortality and it would be ecologically foolish to pretend that the earth isn’t fragile and vulnerable. We’re crazy to tell ourselves we might exterminate death. But there is something profoundly comforting about the rose-tinted lens that, when cast over the specter of death’s shadow, turns it into a kind of optical illusion. As long we can remember that our illusions are also mortal (even our illusions of immortality), I’m not convinced that it’s such a sin to harbor them.