Visions of Immortality and the Death of the Eternal City

Vangough Flowers in a blue  vase

It was a time when the greatest power the world had yet known suffered an attack on its primary city which seemed to signal the coming of an age of unstoppable decline.The once seemingly unopposable power no longer possessed control over its borders,it was threatened by upheaval in North Africa,  unable to bring to heel the stubborn Iranians, or stem its relative decline. It was suffering under the impact of climate change, its politics infected with systemic corruption, its economy buckling under the weight of prolonged crisis.

Blame was sought. Conservatives claimed the problem lie with the abandonment of traditional religion, the rise of groups they termed “atheists” especially those who preached the possibility of personal immortality. One of these “atheists” came to the defense of the immortalist movement arguing not so much that the new beliefs were not responsible for the great tribulations in the political world, but that such tribulations themselves were irrelevant. What counted was the prospect of individual immortality and  the cosmic view- the perspective that held only that which moved humanity along to its ultimate destiny in the universe was of true importance. In the end it would be his movement that survived after the greatest of empires collapsed into the dust of scattered ruins….

Readers may be suspicious that I am engaged in a sleight of hand with such an introduction, and I indeed am; however much the description above resembles the United States of the early 21st century, I am in fact describing the Roman Empire of the 400s C.E. The immortalists here are not contemporary transhumanists or singularitarians but early Christians whom many pagans considered not just dangerously innovative, but also, because they did not believe in the pagan gods, were actually labeled atheists- which is where we get the term. The person who came to the defense of the immortalists and who laid out the argument that it was this personal immortality and the cosmic view of history that went with it that counted rather than the human drama of politics history and culture was not Ray Kurzweil or any other figure of the singularitarian or transhumanist movements,  but Augustine who did so in his work The City of God.

Now, a book with such a title not to mention one written in the 400s might not seem like it would be relevant to any secular 21st century person contemplating our changing relationship with death and time, but let me try to show you why such a conclusion would be false. When Augustine wrote The City of God he was essentially arguing for a new version of immortality. For however much we might tend to think the dream of immortality was invented to assuage human fears of personal death the ancient pagans (and the Jews for that matter) had a pretty dark version of it. Or, as Achilles said to Odysseus:

“By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man—some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”

For the pagans, the only good form of immortality was that brought by fame here on earth. Indeed, in later pagan versions of paradise which more resembled the Christian notion “heaven” was reserved for the big-wigs. The only way to this divinity was to do something godlike on earth in the service of one’s city or the empire. Augustine signaled a change in all that.

Christianity not only upended the pagan idea of immortality granting it to everybody- slaves no less than kings, but, according to Augustine,  rendered the whole public world the pagans had found so important  irrelevant. What counted was the fact of our immortality and the big picture- the fate that God had in store for the universe, the narrative that got us to this end. The greatest of empires could rise and fall what they will, but they were nothing next to the eternity of our soul our God and his creation. Rome had been called the eternal city- but it was more mortal than the soul of its most powerless and insignificant citizen.

Of course, from a secular perspective the immortality that Augustine promised was all in his head. If anything, it served as the foundation not for immortal human beings nor for a narrative of meaning that stretched from the beginning to the the end of time- but for a very long lived institution- the Catholic Church- that has managed to survive for two millennia, much longer indeed than all the empires and states that have come and gone in this period, and who knows, if it gets its act together may even survive for another thousand years.

All of this might seem far removed from contemporary concerns until one realizes the extent to which we ourselves are and will be confronting a revolutionary change in our relationship to both death and time akin to and of a more real and lasting impact than the one Augustine wrestled with. No matter what way one cuts it our relationship to death has changed and is likely to continue to change. The reason for this is that we are now living so long, and suspect we might be able to live much longer. A person in the United States in 1913 could be expected to live just shy of the ripe old age of 53. The same person in 2013 is expected to live within a hair’s breath of 79. In this as in other departments the US has a ways to go. The people of Monaco, the country with the highest life expectancy, live on average a decade longer.

How high can such longevity go? We have no idea. Some, most famously Aubrey de Gray, think there is no theoretical limit to how long a human being can live if we get the science right. We are likely some ways from this, but given the fact that such physical immortality, or something close to it, does not seem to violate any known laws of nature, then if there is not something blocking its appearance, say complexity, or more ominously, expense, we are likely to see something like the defeat of death if not in this century then in some further future that is not some inconceivable distance from us.

This might be a good time,then, to start asking questions about our relationship to death and time, and how both relate to the societies in which we live. Even if immortality remains forever outside our grasp by exploring the topic we might learn something important about death time and ourselves in the process. It was exactly these sorts of issues that Augustine was out to explore.

What Augustine argued in The City of God was that societies, in light of eternal life had nothing like the meaning we were accustomed to giving them. What counted was that one lead a Christian life (although as a believer in predestination Augustine really thought that God would make you do this if he wanted to). The kinds of things that counted in being a good pagan were from Augustine’s standpoint of eternity little but vanity. A wealthy pagan might devote money to his city, pay for a public festival, finance the construction of a theater or forum. Any pagan above the level of a slave would likely spend a good deal of time debating the decisions of his city, take concern in its present state and future prospects. As young men it would be the height of honor for a pagan to risk his life for his city. The pagan would do all these things in the hope that they might be remembered. In this memory and in the lives of his descendants lie the possibility of a  good version of immortality as opposed to the wallowing in the darkness of Hades after death. Augustine countered with a question that was just as much a charge: What is all this harking after being remembered compared to the actual immortality offered by Christ?

There are lengths in the period of longevity far in advance of what human beings now possess where the kinds of tensions between the social and pagan idea of immortality and the individual Christian idea of eternal life that Augustine explored do not yet come into full force. I think Vernor Vinge is onto something (@36 min) when he suggests that extending the human lifespan into the range of multiple centuries would be extremely beneficial for both the individual and society. Longevity on the order of 500 years would likely anchor human beings more firmly in time. In terms of the past such a lifespan would give us a degree of wisdom we sorely lack, allowing us to avoid almost inevitably repeating the mistakes of a prior age once those with personal experience of such mistakes or tragedies are no longer around to offer warnings or even who we could ask- as was the case with our recent financial crisis once most of those who had lived through the Great Depression as adults had passed.

500 years of life would also likely orient us more strongly towards the future. We could not only engage in very long term projects of all sorts that are impossible today given our currently limited number of years, we would actually be invested in making sure our societies weren’t making egregious mistakes- such as changing the climate- whose full effects wouldn’t be felt until centuries in the future. These longer-term horizons, at least when compared to what we have now, would cease being abstractions because it would no longer be our great grandchildren that lived there but us.

The kinds of short-termism that now so distort the politics of the United States might be less likely in a world where longevity was on the order of several centuries. Say what one might about the Founding Fathers, but they certainly took the long-term future of the United States into account and more importantly established the types of lasting institutions that would make that future a good one. Adams and Jefferson created our oldest and perhaps most venerable cultural institution- The Library of Congress. Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. Later American political figures, such as Lincoln, not only did the difficult work of keeping the young nation intact, but developed brillant institutions such as Land-Grant Colleges to allow learning and technological know-how to penetrate the countryside. In addition to all this, the United States invented the idea of national parks, the hope being to preserve for centuries or even millennia the natural legacy of North America.

Where did we get this long term perspective and where did it go? Perhaps it was the afterglow of the Enlightenment’s resurrection of pagan civic virtues. We certainly seem no longer capable of taking such a long view- the light has gone out. Politicians today seem unable to craft policy that will deal with issues beyond the next election cycle let alone respond to issues or foster public investments that will play out or come to fruition in the days of their grandchildren. Individuals seem to have lost some of the ability to think beyond their personal life span, so perhaps, just perhaps, the solution is to increase the lifespan of individuals themselves.

Thinking about time, especially long stretches of time, and how it runs into the annihilation of death, seems to inevitably lead to reflections about human society and the relationship of the young with the old. Freud might have been right when he reduced the human condition to sex and death for something in the desire to leave a future legacy inspired by death does seem to resemble sex- or rather procreation- allowing us to pass along imperfect “copies” of ourselves even if, when it comes to culture, these copies are very much removed from us indeed.

This bridging of the past and the future might even be the ultimate description of what societies and institutions are for. That is, both emerge from our confrontation with time and are attempts to win this conflict by passing information, or better, knowledge, from the past into the future in a similar way to how this is accomplished biologically in the passing on of genes through procreation. The common conception that innovation most likely emerges from youth, if it is true, might be as much a reflection of the fact that the young have quite simply not been here long enough to receive this full transmission and are on that account the most common imperfect “copies” of the ideas of their elders. Again, like sex, the transmission of information from the old to the new generation allows novel combinations and even mutations which if viable are themselves passed along.

It’s at least an interesting question to ask what might happen to societies and institutions that act as our answer to the problem of death if human beings lived for what amounted to forever? The conclusion Augustine ultimately reached is once you eliminate death you eliminate the importance of the social and political worlds. Granting the individual eternity means everything that now grips our attention become little but fleeting Mayflies in the wind. We might actually experience a foretaste of this, some say we are right now, even before extreme periods of longevity are achieved if predictions of an ever accelerating change in our future bear fruit. Combined with vastly increased longevity accelerating change means the individual becomes the only point in history that actually stands still. Whole technological regimes, cultures, even civilizations rise and fall under the impact of technological change while only the individual- in terms of a continuous perspective since birth or construction- remains. This would entail a reversal of all of human history to this point where it has been the institutions that survive for long periods of time while the individuals within them come and go. We therefore can’t be sure what many of the things we take as mere background to our lives today- our country, culture, idea of history, in such circumstances even look like.

What might this new relationship between death and technological and social change  do to the art and the humanities, or “post-humanities”?  The most hopeful prediction regarding this I have heard is again Vinge, though I can not find the clip. Vinge discussed the possibility of extended projects that are largely impossible given today’s average longevity. Artists and writers probably have an intuitive sense for what he means, but here are some examples- though they are mine not his. In a world of vastly increased longevity a painter could do a flower study of every flower on earth or portraits of an entire people. A historian could write a detailed history of a particular city from the palaeolithic through the present in pain staking detail, a novelist could really create a whole alternative imagined world filled with made up versions of memoirs, religious texts, philosophical works and the like. Projects such as these are impossible given our limited time here and on account of the fact that there are many more things to care about in life besides these creations.

Therefore, vastly increased longevity might mean that our greatest period of cultural creation- the world’s greatest paintings, novels, historical works and much else besides will be found in the human future rather than its past. Increased longevity would also hopefully open up scientific and technological projects that were centuries rather than decades in the making such as the recovery of lost species and ecosystems or the move beyond the earth. One is left wondering, however, the extent to which such long term focus will be preserved in light of an accelerating speed of change.

A strange thing is happening in that while the productive lifespan of an individual artist is increasing- so much for The Who’s “hope I die before I get old”-  the amount of time it takes an artist to create any particular work is, through technological advancement, likely decreasing. This should lead to more artistic productivity, but one is left to ponder what any work of art would mean if the dreams of accelerating technological change come true at precisely the same time that human longevity is vastly increased? Here is what I mean: when one tries to imagine a world where human beings live for lengths of time that are orders of magnitude longer than those today and where technological change proves to be in a persistently accelerating state what you get is a world that is so completely transformed within the course of a generation that it bears as much resemblance to the generation before it as we do to the ancient Greeks. What does art mean in such a context where the world it addresses no longer exists not long after it has been made?

This same condition of fleetingness applies to every other aspect of life as well from the societies we live in down to the relationships with those we love.  It was Augustine’s genius to realize that if one looks at life from the perspective of individual eternity it is not the case that everything else becomes immortal as well, but that the mortality of everything we are not becomes highlighted.

This need not spell the end of all those things we currently take as the vastly important long lasting background of our mortal lives, but it will likely change their character. To use a personal story, cultural and political creations and commitments in the future might still be meaningful in the sense that my Nana’s flower garden is meaningful. My Nana just turned 91 and still manages to plant and care for her flowers that bloom in spring only to disappear until brought back by her gentle and wise hands at the season’s return. Perhaps the longer we live the more the world around us will get its meaning not through its durability but as a fleeting beauty brought forth because we cared enough to stop for a moment to orchestrate and hold still, if even for merely a brief instant, time’s relentless flow.

 

Immortal Jellyfish and the Collapse of Civilization

Luca Giordano Cave of Eternity 1680s

The one rule that seems to hold for everything in our Universe is that all that exists, after a time, must pass away, which for life forms means they will die. From there, however, the bets are off and the definition of the word “time” in the phrase “after a time” comes into play. The Universe itself may exist for as long as 100s of trillions of years to at last disappear into the formless quantum field from whence it came. Galaxies, or more specifically, clusters of galaxies and super-galaxies, may survive for perhaps trillions of years to eventually be pulled in and destroyed by the black holes at their centers.

Stars last for a few billion years and our own sun some 5 or so billion years in the future will die after having expanded and then consumed the last of its nuclear fuel. The earth having lasted around 10 billion years by that point will be consumed in this  expansion of the Sun. Life on earth seems unlikely to make it all the way to the Sun’s envelopment of it and will likely be destroyed billions of years before the end of the Sun- as solar expansion boils away the atmosphere and oceans of our precious earth.

The lifespan of even the oldest lived individual among us is nothing compared to this kind of deep time. In contrast to deep time we are, all of us, little more than mayflies who live out their entire adult lives in little but a day. Yet, like the mayflies themselves who are one of the earth’s oldest existent species: by the very fact that we are the product of a long chain of life stretching backward we have contact with deep time.

Life on earth itself if not quite immortal does at least come within the range of the “lifespan” of other systems in our Universe, such as stars. If life that emerged from earth manages to survive and proves capable of moving beyond the life-cycle of its parent star, perhaps the chain in which we exist can continue in an unbroken line to reach the age of galaxies or even the Universe itself. Here then might lie something like immortality.

The most likely route by which this might happen is through our own species,  Homo Sapiens or our descendents. Species do not exist forever, and our is likely to share this fate of demise either through actual extinction or evolution into something else. In terms of the latter, one might ask if our survival is assumed, how far into the future we would need to go where our descendents are no longer recognizably, human? As long as something doesn’t kill us, or we don’t kill ourselves off first, I think that choice, for at least the foreseeable future will be up to us.

It is often assumed that species have to evolve or they will die. A common refrain I’ve heard among some transhumanists  is “evolve or die!”. In one sense, yes, we need to adapt to changing circumstances, in another, no, this is not really what evolution teaches us, or is not the only thing it teaches us. When one looks at the earth’s longest extant species what one often sees is that once natural selection comes us with a formula that works that model will be preserved essentially unchanged over very long stretches of time, even for what can be considered deep time. Cyanobacteria are nearly as old as life on earth itself, and the more complex Horseshoe Crab, is essentially the same as its relatives that walked the earth before the dinosaurs. The exact same type of small creatures that our children torture on beach vacations might have been snacks for a baby T-Rex!

That was the question of the longevity of species but what about the longevity of individuals? Anyone interested the should check out the amazing photo study of the subject by the artist Rachel Sussman. You can see Sussman’s work here at TED, and over at Long Now.  The specimen Sussman brings to light have individuals over 2,000 years old.  Almost all are bacteria or plants and clonal- that is they exist as a single organism composed of genetically identical individuals linked together by common root and other systems. Plants and especially trees are perhaps the most interesting because they are so familiar to us and though no plant can compete with the longevity of bacteria, a clonal colony of Quaking Aspen in Utah is an amazing 80,000 years old!

The only animals Sussman deals with are corals, an artistic decision that reflects the fact that animals do not survive for all that long- although one species of animal she does not cover might give the long-lifers in the other kingdoms a run for their money. The “immortal jellyfish” the turritopsis nutricula are thought to be effectively biologically immortal (though none are likely to have survived in the wild for anything even approaching the longevity of the longest lived plants). The way they achieve this feat is a wonder of biological evolution.The turritopsis nutricula, after mating upon sexual maturity, essentially reverses it own development process and reverts back to prior clonal state.

Perhaps we could say that the turritopsis nutricula survives indefinitely by moving between more and less complex types of structures all the while preserving the underlying genes of an individual specimen intact. Some hold out the hope that the turritopsis nutricula holds the keys to biological immortality for individuals, and let’s hope they’re right, but I, for one, think its lessons likely lie elsewhere.

A jellyfish is a jellyfish, after all, among more complex animals with well developed nervous systems longevity moves much closer to a humanly comprehensible lifespan with the oldest living animal a giant tortoise by the too cute name of “Jonathan” thought to be around 178 years old.  This is still a very long time frame in human terms, and perhaps puts the briefness of our own recent history in perspective: it would be another 26 years after Jonathan hatched from his egg till the first shots of the American Civil War were fired. A lot can happen over the life of a “turtle”.

Individual plants, however, put all individual animals to shame. The oldest non-clonal plant, The Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, has a specimen believed to be 5,062 years old. In some ways this oldest living non-clonal individual is perfectly illustrative of the (relatively) new way human beings have reoriented themselves to time, and even deep time.When this specimen of pine first emerged from a cone human beings had only just invented a whole set of tools that would make the transmission of cultural rather than genetic information across vast stretches of time possible. During the 31st century B.C.E. we invented monumental architecture such as Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt whose builders still “speak” to us, pose questions to us, from millennia ago. Above all, we invented writing which allowed someone with little more than a clay tablet and a carving utensil to say something to me living 5,000 years in his future.

Humans being the social animals that they are we might ask ourselves about the mortality or potential immortality of groups that survive across many generations, and even for thousands of years. Group that survive for such a long period of time seem to emerge most fully out of the technology of writing which allows both the ability to preserve historical memory and permits a common identity around a core set of ideas. The two major types of human groups based on writing are institutions, and societies which includes not just the state but also the economic, cultural, and intellectual features of a particular group.


Among the biggest mistakes I think those charged with responsibility for an institution or a society can make is to assume that it is naturally immortal, and that such a condition is independent of whatever decisions and actions those in charge of it take. This was part of the charge Augustine laid against the seemingly eternal Roman Empire in his The City of God. The Empire, Augustine pointed out, was a human institution that had grown and thrived from its virtues in the past just as surely as it was in his day dying from its vices. Augustine, however, saw the Church and its message as truly eternal. Empires would come and go but the people of God and their “city” would remain.

It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that the Catholic Church, which chooses a Pope this week, has been so beset by scandal that its very long-term survivability might be thought at stake. Even seemingly eternal institutions, such as the 2,000 year old Church, require from human beings an orientation that might be compared to the way theologians once viewed the relationship of God and nature. Once it was held that constant effort by God was required to keep the Universe from slipping back into the chaos from whence it came. That the action of God was necessary to open every flower. While this idea holds very little for us in terms of our understanding of nature, it is perhaps a good analog for human institutions, states and our own personal relationships which require our constant tending or they give way to mortality.

It is perhaps difficult for us to realize that our own societies are as mortal as the empires of old, and someday my own United States will be no more. America is a very odd country in respect to its’ views of time and history. A society seemingly obsessed with the new and the modern, contemporary debates almost always seek reference and legitimacy on the basis of men who lived and thought over 200 years ago. The Founding Fathers were obsessed with the mortality of states and deliberately crafted a form of government that they hoped might make the United States almost immortal.

Much of the structure of American constitutionalism where government is divided into “branches” which would “check and balance” one another was based on a particular reading of long-lived ancient systems of government which had something like this tripart structure, most notably Sparta and Rome. What “killed” a society, in the view of the Founders, was when one element- the democratic, oligarchic-aristocratic, or kingly rose to dominate all others. Constitutionally divided government was meant to keep this from happening and therefore would support the survival of the United States indefinitely.

Again, it is somewhat bitter irony that the very divided nature of American government that was supposed to help the United States survive into the far future seems to be making it impossible for the political class in the US to craft solutions to the country’s quite serious long-term problems and therefore might someday threaten the very survival of the country divided government was meant to secure.

Anyone interested in the question of the extended survival of their society, indeed of civilization itself, needs to take into account the work of Joseph A. Tainter and his The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988). Here, the archaeologist Tainter not only provides us with a “science” that explains the mortality of societies, his viewpoint, I think, provides us for ways to think about and gives us insight into seeming intractable social and economic and technological bottlenecks that now confront all developed economies: Japan, the EU/UK and the United States.

Tainter, in his Collapse wanted to move us away from vitalist ideas of the end of civilization seen in thinkers such as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. We needed, in his view, to put our finger on the material reality of a society to figure out what conditions most often lead them to dissipate i.e. to move from a more complex and integrated form, such as the Roman Empire, to a more simple and less integrated form, such as the isolated medieval fiefdoms that followed.

Grossly oversimplified, Tainter’s answer was a dry two word concept borrowed from economics- marginal utility. The idea is simple if you think about it for a moment. Any society is likely to take advantage of “low-hanging fruit” first. The best land will be the first to be cultivated, the easiest resources to gain access to exploited.

The “fruit”,  however, quickly becomes harder to pick- problems become harder for a society to solve which leads to a growth in complexity. Romans first tapped tillable land around the city, but by the end of the Empire the city needed a complex international network of trade and political control to pump grain from the distant Nile Valley into the city of Rome.

Yet, as a society deploys more and more complex solutions to problems it becomes institutionally “heavy” (the legacy of all the problems it has solved in the past) just as problems become more and more difficult to solve. The result is, at some point, the shear amount of resources that need to be thrown at a problem to solve it are no longer possible and the only lasting solution becomes to move down the chain of complexity to a simpler form. Roman prosperity and civilization drew in the migration of “barbarian” populations in the north whose pressures would lead to the splitting of the Empire in two and the eventual collapse of its Western half.            

It would seem that we have broken through Tainter’s problem of marginal utility with the industrial revolution, but we should perhaps not judge so fast. The industrial revolution and all of its derivatives up to our current digital and biological revolutions, replaced a system in which goods were largely produced at a local level and communities were largely self-sufficient, with a sprawling global network of interconnections and coordinated activities requiring vast amounts of specialized knowledge on the part of human beings who, by necessity, must participate in this system to provide for their most basic needs.

Clothes that were once produced in the home of the individual who would wear them, are now produced thousands of miles away by workers connected to a production and transportation system that requires the coordination of millions of persons many of whom are exercising specialized knowledge. Food that was once grown or raised by the family that consumed it now requires vast systems of transportation, processing, the production of fertilizers from fossil fuels and the work of genetic engineers to design both crops and domesticated animals.

This gives us an indication of just how far up the chain of complexity we have moved, and I think leads inevitably to the questions of whether such increasing complexity might at some point stall for us, or even be thrown into reverse?

The idea that, despite all the whiz-bang! of modern digital technology, we have somehow stalled out in terms of innovation is an idea that has recently gained traction. There was the argument made by the technologist and entrepreneur, Peter Thiel, at the 2009 Singularity Summit, that the developed world faced real dangers of the Singularity not happening quickly enough. Thiel’s point was that our entire society was built around the expectations of exponential technological growth that showed ominous signs of not happening. I only need to think back to my Social Studies textbooks in the 1980s and their projections of the early 2000s with their glittering orbital and underwater cities, both of which I dreamed of someday living in, to realize our futuristic expectations are far from having been met. More depressingly, Thiel points out how all of our technological wonders have not translated into huge gains in economic growth and especially have not resulted in any increase in median income which has been stagnant since the 1970s.

In addition to Theil, you had the economist, Tyler Cowen, who in his The Great Stagnation (2011)  argued compellingly that the real root of America’s economic malaise was that the kinds of huge qualitative innovations that were seen in the 19th and early 20th centuries- from indoor toilets, to refrigerators, to the automobile, had largely petered out after the low hanging fruit- the technologies easiest to reach using the new industrial methods- were picked. I may love my iPhone (if I had one), but it sure doesn’t beat being able to sanitarily go to the bathroom indoors, or keep my food from rotting, or travel many miles overland on a daily basis in mere minutes or hours rather than days.

One reason why technological change is perhaps not happening as fast as boosters such as singularitarians hope, or our society perhaps needs to be able to continue to function in the way we have organized it, can be seen in the comments of the technologists, social critic and novelist, Ramez Naam. In a recent interview for  The Singularity Weblog, Naam points out that one of the things believers in the Singularity or others who hold to ideas regarding the exponential pace of technological growth miss is that the complexity of the problems technology is trying to solve are also growing exponentially, that is problems are becoming exponentially harder to solve. It’s for this reason that Naam finds the singularitarians’ timeline widely optimistic. We are a long long way from understanding the human brain in such a way that it can be replicated in an AI.

The recent proposal of the Obama Administration to launch an Apollo type project to understand the human brain along with the more circumspect, EU funded, Human Brain Project /Blue Brain Project might be seen as attempts to solve the epistemological problems posed by increasing complexity, and are meant to be responses to two seemingly unrelated technological bottlenecks stemming from complexity and the problem of increasing marginal returns.

On the epistemological front the problem seems to be that we are quite literally drowning in data, but are sorely lacking in models by which we can put the information we are gathering together into working theories that anyone actually understands. As Henry Markham the founder of the Blue Brain Project stated:

So yes, there is no doubt that we are generating a massive amount of data and knowledge about the brain, but this raises a dilemma of what the individual understands. No neuroscientists can even read more than about 200 articles per year and no neuroscientists is even remotely capable of comprehending the current pool of data and knowledge. Neuroscientists will almost certainly drown in data the 21st century. So, actually, the fraction of the known knowledge about the brain that each person has is actually decreasing(!) and will decrease even further until neuroscientists are forced to become informaticians or robot operators.

This epistemological problem, which was brilliantly discussed by Noam Chomsky in an interview late last year is related to the very real bottleneck in Artificial Intelligence- the very technology Peter Thiel thinks is essentially if we are to achieve the rates of economic growth upon which our assumptions of technological and economic progress depend.

We have developed machines with incredible processing power, and the digital revolution is real, with amazing technologies just over the horizon. Still, these machines are nowhere near doing what we would call “thinking”. Or, to paraphrase the neuroscientist and novelist David Eagleman- the AI WATSON might have been able to beat the very best human being in the game Jeopardy! What it could not do was answer a question obvious to any two year old like “When Barack Obama enters a room, does his nose go with him?”

Understanding how human beings think, it is hoped, might allow us to overcome this AI bottleneck and produce machines that possess qualities such as our own or better- an obvious tool for solving society’s complex problems.

The other bottleneck a large scale research project on the brain is meant to solve is the halted development of psychotropic drugs- a product of the enormous and ever increasing costs for the creation of such products. Itself a product of the complexity of the problem pharmaceutical companies are trying to tackle, namely; how does the human brain work and how can we control its functions and manage its development?  This is especially troubling given the predictable rise in neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s.   It is my hope that these large scale projects will help to crack the problem of the human brain, and especially as it pertains to devastating neurological disorders, let us pray they succeed.

On the broader front, Tainter has a number of solutions that societies have come up with to the problem of marginal utility two of which are merely temporary and the other long-term. The first is for society to become more complex, integrated, bigger. The old school way to do this was through conquest, but in an age of nuclear weapons and sophisticated insurgencies the big powers seem unlikely to follow that route. Instead what we are seeing is proposals such as the EU-US free trade area and the Trans-Pacific partnership both of which appear to assume that the solution to the problems of globalization is more globalization. The second solution is for a society to find a new source of energy. Many might have hoped this would have come in the form of green-energy rather than in the form it appears to have taken- shale gas, and oil from the tar sands of Canada. In any case, Tainter sees both of these solutions as but temporary respites for the problem of marginal utility.

The only long lasting solution Tainter sees for  increasing marginal utility is for a society to become less complex that is less integrated more based on what can be provided locally than on sprawling networks and specialization. Tainter wanted to move us away from seeing the evolution of the Roman Empire into the feudal system as the “death” of a civilization. Rather, he sees the societies human beings have built to be extremely adaptable and resilient. When the problem of increasing complexity becomes impossible to solve societies move towards less complexity. It is a solution that strangely echoes that of the “immortal jellyfish” the turritopsis nutricula, the only path complex entities have discovered that allows them to survive into something that whispers eternity.

Image description: From the National Gallery in London. “The Cave Of Eternity” (1680s) by Luca Giordan.“The serpent biting its tail symbolises Eternity. The crowned figure of Janus holds the fleece from which the Three Fates draw out the thread of life. The hooded figure is Demagorgon who receives gifts from Nature, from whose breasts pours forth milk. Seated at the entrance to the cave is the winged figure of Chronos, who represents Time.”

Life is already eternal, sort of…

What often strikes me when I put the claims of some traditionally religious people regarding “eternal life” and the stated goals of the much more recent, I suppose you could label it with the oxymoronic phrase “materialist spirituality”, next to one another is just how much of the language and fundamental assumptions regarding human immortality these very different philosophies share.

Both the traditionally religious, especially those who fall under the somewhat simplistic label of “fundamentalist” and followers of materialist spirituality, whose worldview supposedly emerges out of science, share the essential goal of the survival of the individual. The ultimate objective for, say, a Bible thumping preacher from Tennessee and a technology ensconced singularitarian from San-Francisco are the same- the escape from the seeming inevitability of death and the survival of themselves into boundless eternity. Where they differ is on how to get there.

Just like Christianity or any other religion has its sects, those who embrace the goal of individual immortality under the umbrella of materialist spirituality have their sects as well. There are “mind-uploaders” who hope to transform themselves into eternal software, and some transhumanists who wish to so revolutionize human biology, perhaps with the addition of characteristics of advanced machines, so that death itself can be put off indefinitely. There are biologically centered immortalist- such as Aubrey de Gray, who hope to find the biological triggers that result in death and permanently turn them off, and others.

The reason both some (but by no means all) traditional religions and materialist spirituality share these almost identical goals stems, I think, from the fact that they come at the world from exactly the same frame of reference- that of the individual. But one might wonder what conclusions we would draw about the meaning and fate of life and sentience in the universe were we to adopt a different frame in which our own interests were not so clearly front and center. Is there a way to look at the relationship between life, especially sentient life, and time that makes the Universe seem meaningful even in light of our own personal death, or are those of us who trust the truth of science and are at the same time skeptical of materialist spirituality condemned to the conclusion drawn by the physicist Steven Weinberg that “The More the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless” ?

These questions were hitting me when I came across a book that had absolutely nothing to do with the subject of immortality: Dimitar Sasselov’s The Life of Super-Earths: How the Hunt for Alien Worlds and Artificial Cells Will Revolutionize Life on Our Planet.  I will get into the nitty gritty of the book elsewhere, but here for me was the overall point of the work, for me a very optimistic point indeed- that the Universe is very young, and life itself only a little bit younger, and that life has a very, very long time before senescence in front of it.

We tend, I think, to be overwhelmed by the shortness of our individual lives when put in the context of the deep time scales science has revealed to us. And what is my life here, indeed, but a flicker in the context of billions of years? But if we step back from our personal lives for a moment and grasp the chain of living things upon which our being here has entailed at least some of this vertigo of time can perhaps be avoided.

I myself, and you, are here as the result of a chain of life that stretches backwards almost to the very beginning of the Universe. The same root found in the beginning of life on earth 4 billion years ago can be found in our DNA today. We are the bearers of a cosmically ancient inheritance that is comparable to the age of the Universe itself. Sasselov states it in the very plain language that: “ if the Universe were a 55 year old, Life would be a 16 year old” (p. 138)

If our roots stretching back into the beginning of time is important, for me the most optimistic message of  Sasselov’s book is that the future of life, and not just life that originated on earth, stretches out even farther. Sasselov comes up with a good possible answer to Fermi’s Paradox- the fact that in conditions seemingly so ripe for life to have emerged the Universe is so damned silent. Sasselov’s theory is that the emergence of life is tied to the evolution of stars. The early Universe lacked the heavy elements that seem necessary for life, which need to be produced by long lived stars, so overtime these elements become more numerous and the types of stars that come to predominate are ones that, unlike earlier stars, readily produce a rich sea of these elements. The Universe is silent because we are likely to have been one of the very first intelligent civilizations to emerge at the beginning of this move towards the production of heavy elements- a just dawning golden age for life in the cosmos that will last at least 100 billion years into the future.

Moving away from Sasselov, the physicist, and very public atheist, Lawrence Krauss, in a friendly debate with fellow physicist Freeman Dyson seems to suggest that no complex, conscious entity in an expanding universe can be immortal given the current laws of physics. The physics are quite gnarly, but the in essence Krauss’ argument boils down to the fact that having an infinite number of “thoughts” is impossible in a Universe such as our own where the amount of energy is finite.

As is Krauss’ style, he tends to see the prospects of the impossibility for obtaining eternity, and the ultimate destiny of the Universe in a structureless heat-death in a spirit of humor charged doom.  I do not, however, find this a reason to fret even jokingly, for think of the richness of lives- the number of sentient creatures, civilizations, worlds that according to Sasselov likely lie in front of us- the unfathomable depth of all that experience! There is a lot of living left to do, but this living it isn’t just in the future for there is a depth of lived time in the present to which most of us are probably unaware. Let me explain.

Around the same time I was reading The Life of Super-Earths I came across this wonderful graph from, of all places, The Economist.

The Ages of Man

The blurb in which this graph was embedded brought attention to the potential years of wisdom available to human beings on account of both the extension of the human lifespan and the rise in population and called on us to make use of it. It pointed out that with the milestone of 7 billion people in 2011 the aggregate age of everyone alive rose to 220 billion years. By the end of the 21st century:

The world’s population will have stabilized at just over 10 billion and those people will have accumulated 430 billion years of human experience between them.

The philosophical implications of this were not explored by the Economist, but think about it for a second. The number of subjective years lived today by the only fully sentient creature we know of- ourselves- is already more than ten times the chronological age of the physical universe! By the end of the century those subjective years will have grown to be around 30 times larger than the age of the Universe.  In this sense life is not only older, but much older than the cosmos in which it swims and collectively might already be said to possess time on the scale of what any individual would consider eternity.

I think this reframing of the issue of eternity opens up deep questions that need to be addressed by those looking at immortality from a more individualistic bent. For example, perhaps the most outspoken proponent of “ending death” in a biological sense is Aubrey de Grey. In a talk at TEDMED de Grey admits the obvious- that extending the lifespan of those already alive in a world of finite resources would inevitably result in people having less children. Strangely, he seems to think that this indefinite lifespan is something we are morally obligated to make possible for the current generation and the one in the immediate future. His position seems to ignore the generations after whose potential lives might shrink to be near zero as people defray having children in order to live indefinitely. De Grey’s position seems to become even more suspect when we place it in the context of subjective time mentioned above.

Unless there is some flaw in my logic, it seems that in a Universe where life can not exist infinitely, which is what Krauss’ work shows, or in a world of finite resources if an individual (or a society) chooses to forgo having children in the name of indefinite lifespan for individuals the amount of subjective time available in the Universe as a consequence goes down. To use an extreme example: imagine a Universe with only one sentient being that lived for a very very long time- though not infinitely. Such a Universe would have experienced much less subjective experience than a large number of sentient beings that lived a briefer but rich amount of time where life as a whole lasted for an equal duration. The same would hold for a Universe in which one civilization monopolized sentience when contrasted with a Universe with a rich plurality of civilizations. Less diversity, less full existence.

This is not an argument for maximizing the number of children. For the decision to have a child represents a deeply personal choice and commitment and brings other moral factors into play not the least is the one of the quality of life for individuals and the impact of human lives on diversity elsewhere in the biosphere meaning the question of sustainability.

Yet, there would appear to be a threshold where increasing the lifespan of individuals at the cost of forgoing new lives is cosmically impoverishing. Thus, before the human immortality project can be embraced without deep moral reservations, some notion of how this project relates to the prospects for potential life in the future (extending even beyond humanity to its consequences for the life of the earth’s biosphere) need to be addressed. Collective “immortality” appears to have the moral high ground on types of immortality that are focused on individuals alone.

The stunning thing is that many of the world’s traditional religions already appear to have an intuitive sense of this collective immortality. The way to immortality for the ancient Greeks was fame in the service to one’s polis, for many of the other religions the path to immortality lies in the abandonment of the ego and the adoption of selflessness and service to others. Traditional humanists often thought of themselves as links in a great chain of poets, writers, musicians, philosophers or scientists.

For what it is worth, proponents of today’s materialist spirituality in their focus on the individual seem to have broken themselves off from this great chain of life and thought. The wonders of science may or may not someday bring us escape from individual death, but all we can reasonably do for now are things we have always done: raise our children, write a poem, discover a truth, compose a song, help a fellow human being, or preserve a political community or wilderness. In these ways we add the short time of our existence to a future of life that stretches out long in front of us in a Universe filled with a plethora of species and civilizations we can scant imagine. A world where, for all practical purposes, life and thought are indeed already, eternal.