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.


26 comments on “Life is already eternal, sort of…

  1. I may be reducing things to the lowest common denominator here, but I cannot but think of Annie Hall any time a discussion such as this rears its head:

    Excellent post as ever.

  2. Hi Rick,

    Thanks for another thought provoking post! I’m not sure that I had really considered the accumulation of years lived in proportion to the number of people alive before. It adds some interesting points to the discussion of how we should consider life extension technologies, especially if we try to break down some of the mathematics for calculating the total years lived of living people. 🙂

    The total number of years lived increases at a rate proportional to the number of people that are alive. So if there are no deaths, it doesn’t what the age of the population is, the rate of increase will be the same for the same population. Every time an old person dies, however, we lose all their accumulated years of experience. If we replaced 500 million people that were 60 years or older with newborn children (age 0 years) we would lose 30 billion years of experience even though the change in population would be zero.

    If anything, this seems to me as a potential argument for seeking immortality. Life extension technologies prevent the loss of the experience of individuals, which reduces the rate of increase of total years experience of living people.

    Other interesting angles include: simulated or uploaded people living at faster rates of time than the normal human experience; copies of minds having completely redundant experiences; and whether years of experience of other living organisms should be considered in a similar manner.

    Of course, this is considering hypothetical technologies, and might be taking that particular point much further than you had intended, but I often find thinking through these sorts of implications a fun way to gauge at what point ideas might start breaking down.

    I’ll try to have another read through your post and think on a bit more what you’ve written in this post.


    • Rick Searle says:

      Hey Toby,

      I think my perspective is a little different.
      If there were only one person in the Universe at one year old would mean that at one chronological year old the Universe would have allowed 1 year of subjective experience. If there were instead 2 persons the Universe at 1 year old would have allowed 2 years of subjective experience and so on and so on. The more creatures that have had a subjective experience of time the “older” in that limited sense the Universe is.

      I don’t think death represents the loss of years- the years were already experienced so I am not sure in what sense they are “gone”, therefore, the question becomes, for me, is a Universe with death a richer one in terms of subjective experience and a deeper one in terms of time than an any Universe without death subject to the same physical laws as our own.

      • James Cross says:

        “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” – Mark Twain

      • Interpreting the plot from the Economist, they are only considering years of experience of current living humans. By some estimates there have been 100 billion humans born since our evolution, which would likely put the total figure of years experienced (including the dead) to well over 1 trillion. Nevertheless, I think considering the totality of human experience fits into my current ethical framework in a reasonably complementary fashion.

        Unless there is some added value in having new people experience those years (which reciprocally means a diminishing return as people age), it shouldn’t matter whether the person living them is 5 or 500 years old. Something I was getting at was that in terms of the rate of increase in years of subjective experience, the main factor is the number of people alive.

        When I say that experience is “lost”, I mean that the experience is no longer available to us. Everybody that has lived, and does live, have had good reason to value their own experiences. But all experiences that are not recorded in some way are lost to the living after death. I think that’s a good reason to try to prevent not only my own death, but the deaths of everyone (and maybe a good reason to start recording more of my experiences).

      • Rick Searle says:

        I see no way of preventing our deaths in aggregate without diminishing new births. The question boils down to: would you prefer birth or death to survive?

      • I’m not sure how strongly you agree with that Mark Twain quote, but I think it underestimates the inconvenience of death. 🙂

        We could resolve a lot of scientific and historical questions if we could somehow experience and investigate the past — if we were alive back then. It would be a lot easier to investigate the early conditions after the big bang by being there (assuming we could survive). It would be easier to resolve the truth of religious miracles by being there.

        From another point of view, there could potentially be a lot to be gained by having geniuses of the past still alive today. If religious prophets and witnesses were still alive today, we could potential resolve a large number of religious disputes. I guess it also could go without saying that we would rather our loved ones didn’t die.

      • Hi Rick,

        I think that choice (if I understand it right) might be a false dichotomy. With the right technological and social advancements, we might be able to achieve sustainability in continuing to have children, and still prevent practically all natural death.

        In the meantime, while the current management of the world’s resources is not sustainable, and death is not indefinitely preventable, some amount of births are necessary for continuing the human species.

        If we get to the stage where it is affordable to indefinitely prevent natural deaths of the whole human population, but can’t sustain a larger population, my short-term preference would be to reducing the birth-rate to near zero rather than allow people to continue to die.

        A debate over this question might have some interesting parallels to the debate over abortion. My stance here echoes my view that women should have the right to choose. Adult lives are, by some measures and circumstances, more valuable than those of unborn children.

      • Rick Searle says:

        Hi Toby,

        My thoughts are that if the goal of indefinite life extension is to be seriously adopted and remain ethical we should figure out the resource question first. There are all sorts of ideas out there for dealing with the resource question including nano-machines that turn garbage into useful products and all that meet some margin of safety should be tried, but I am a little pessimistic that we will even be able to meet the goal of sustaining the global population where it will be at the close of this century – at upwards of 10 billion- in a way that does not end up destroying the biosphere upon which we depend. Achieving what de Grey calls “longevity escape velocity” before we clearly possess the tools at our disposal to sustain the rise in population seems much more ethically responsible both to future generations and life other than ourselves than moving at the speed of panic because of our own impending deaths.

        Indeed, there is a part of me that sees de Grey’s whole logic as deeply flawed. In his talk he seemed to suggest that we needed a Manhattan type project against death, but we already spend almost 20% of our economy (and rising) trying to defeat death. We call it the Health Care System.

        Lately, I’ve been looking at some graphs relating health care spending and longevity stretching back to the 1930s and it seems that heath care spending/longevity suffer from the law of increasing marginal utility.

        It seems that an increasing share of GDP is yearly taken up by health care cost while the increase in longevity remains stubbornly the same. We gained about 2 years per decade when we invested 5% of our income on health care and we gain 2 years of longevity when we invest 20% of our GDP.

        This is because every time we gain 2 years gaining the next 2 is a more complex problem and harder than before. When society reaches the point where too much of its income is taken up in health care spending, the whole trend of rising longevity might grind to a halt.

        If it does ever come down to a choice between birth and death I side with Steve Jobs in choosing birth.
        I am not sure if this is as analogous to the abortion debate as it would seem at first blush. Abortion is a question of whether an individual will have their own children it is not a choice as to whether children will be born at all. It might be more akin to aborting someone else’s children than forgoing having children oneself.

  3. James Cross says:

    You should take a look at Frank Tipler’s The Physics of Immortality for a different scientific (some may say crackpot) way of approaching immortality. He argues that at some future point in the history of the universe before the universe collapses our ancestors will gain access to infinite computing power. At that point, they will choose to simulate us forever and we will gain immortality.

    A Nick Bostrom argument could be turned against Tipler that most likely we already are that simulation.

    In either case, all of us gain immortality through simulation by our ancestors.

    And since we also will eventually gain access to that computing power we eventually will simulate our ancestors even if we are simulations ourselves in a sort of infinite nesting of simulations within simulations.

    • Rick Searle says:

      I’ve been thinking about the simulation argument a little bit lately. My take on it as of the moment is that anything running such a simulation has to have a real sadist streak. You run smack dab into the same argument people have made against the existence of God- that there’s so much damned suffering in the world. I am not sure why the conditions of a “simulation” would require that we experience actual pain.

      I had been looking around and came across a quote by the sci-fi writer Greg Egan such a simulation. Here’s the quote about his novel Permutations:

      “What I regret most is my uncritical treatment of the idea of allowing intelligent life to evolve in the Autoverse. Sure, this is a common science-fictional idea, but when I thought about it properly (some years after the book was published), I realised that anyone who actually did this would have to be utterly morally bankrupt. To get from micro-organisms to intelligent life this way would involve an immense amount of suffering, with billions of sentient creatures living, struggling and dying along the way. Yes, this happened to our own ancestors, but that doesn’t give us the right to inflict the same kind of suffering on anyone else. ”

      I think this is something that Nick Bostrom doesn’t take into account in his explanation of the simulation argument which he thinks has three parts 1) That it is technologically possible at some point to build such simulations 2) That some civilization reaches this stage of technological maturity, 3) That civilizations which such capacity remain interested in creating such civilization.

      He should add a 4th – that civilizations with such capacity realize such realistic simulations in which pain and suffering is real would be morally bankrupt.

      • James Cross says:

        John Cage was asked if he thought there was too much suffering in the world.

        He replied, “I think there’s just the right amount.”

        A mixture of suffering and ecstasy is required to make the world interesting.

      • Rick Searle says:

        Even if in my own case I might agree my conclusion is that I have not suffered enough to make the question of suffering felt.

        A young woman who I work with recently lost a daughter of 3 yrs old to Myocardosis. I see no reason for the degree of suffering experienced by her family from this tragedy. Either God or the “programmer” would have to be held culpable for that. Unless that is neither are there.

    • I think it’s probable that the fundamental physical laws that impose limits that our technological advancement will never be overcome. I would, however, be slightly happier knowing that the universe is a cyclic phenomenon, or something. I don’t really like the heat death scenario. But simulations are interesting to consider for other reasons.

      I think it may be beneficial to escape the view that suffering is inherently wrong. Pain and discomfort are biological mechanisms for telling what we should avoid if we want to survive. I think survival and learning are more important things to value. The suffering becomes “wrong”, in my view, when there is nothing that can be learned from it, or it results in death or some other reduction in the capacity for future learning.

      I were not concerned that I would die, or be subject to other permanent impairments, I would be interested in experiencing everything the universe has to offer, including the suffering. Simulations could allow that.

      • Rick Searle says:

        As I mentioned to James, I think the simulation argument runs into the same suffering argument encountered by theist. You have to discount a lot of horrible and unnecessary events by the “programer” to accept it – the Black Death, Holocaust etc. If a civilization has made it to the point where they can create such simulations it probably means they had the moral capacity not to destroy one another something that likely entails the realization that creating such realistic simulations was morally abhorrent.

  4. James Cross says:

    Rick, you are missing one critical point. If this is a simulation, there are no horrible events, there is no suffering – they are not real.

    Life is suffering. The cause of suffering is attachment to the simulation that is this world. We can eliminate the cause of suffering by seeing through the simulation and freeing ourselves from attachment to it.

    Sound familiar? Buddhism in a nutshell!

    • Rick Searle says:

      Oh, I think I understand the Buddhist view, but despite my admiration for other elements of Buddhism it, I find it ethically vacant.

      Imagine loosing a child or some other horribly tragic event and someone telling you your suffering is an illusion- that the key to overcoming the pain of this is to see it as an illusion. I think such a suggestion totally unmoors us from our nature as human beings who love particular things of this world different from those which others love and often suffer because of this. Attachment is after all just another name for love and the answer to suffering that we should stop loving particular persons etc has no attraction for me,

      • James Cross says:

        There is hardly another religion with more compassion or ethics than Buddhism.

        The illusion is a fact of belief, It is not a way of coping with tragedy.

        And you still seem to be missing the critical point that this is a simulation the horrible events are not real and there would no reason to hold the “programmer” morally culpable

      • Rick Searle says:

        James, I have nothing against Buddhism. If it gives me any cred I seen the Dali Lama ;>)
        I have a great deal of respect for their psychology. I think Buddhist compassion for suffering stems from compassion for others that remain attached, no?

        I just don’t believe in the premise that suffering is an illusion, that the way to enlightenment is end to attachment, or that the world we live in is a simulation in which suffering is a reflection of the fact that we are cognitively locked into believing our perceptions and ego are real.

        I think the clip I shared from Blogging Heads just hit it home for me. Unlike Gary Weber, I am unwilling to give up attachment to my daughters even if this means I will not escape suffering and never be enlightened on Buddhist terms. I am willing to accept the responsibility (even if misplaced) for the well-being of persons I have brought here as I believe should be the case for any super-civilization that created us as a simulation.

  5. Rick Searle says:

    Just listening to this on the Buddhists subject today:

  6. James Cross says:

    I really don’t think you are quite “grasping” 🙂 Buddhism or Gary Weber.

    Buddhism is not asking you to give up anything except attachment. You can love your daughters without attachment.

    • Rick Searle says:

      James my friend, that is not what I take from Weber. Below is the transcript of him talking to Wright about his relationship with his daughters:

      Robert Wright: Would you say that you love them more than you love people outside of your family.

      Gary Weber: Honestly I’d have to say no.

      Robert Wright: Wow.

      Gary Weber: That’s kind of a down side of this discussion. It follows logically, but that wasn’t something that I expected. It is a self-referential attachment and if you are attached to them it’s going to pull that in and I don’t feel that honestly.

      Robert Wright: Yeah well, it complies with Buddhist doctrine. It’s not a surprise in that sense right? It’s a known kind of consequence of taking the doctrine seriously and in a certain sense of other ethical systems. I mean if you’re a utilitarian you’re supposed to think that every human’s welfare is equally important which means you should not devote any more resources to your children’s welfare or to your own welfare than anyone else.

      Gary Weber: That’s correct.

  7. […] as I have mentioned elsewhere, a much less metaphysically laden explanation for the Fermi Paradox can be found in the simple life […]

  8. […] Fishman has a neat way of giving us perspective on what the achievement of 80 year longevity means for our species by putting it in terms of life years. At merely the same rate of longevity increase as we have today the world’s population in 2050 will have lived around 500 billion years more than had they be born in 1900! (p.14) That number, 500 billion, not only reveals the extent of the environmental challenges we face, but gives us an idea of the depth of human experience and creativity we might gain. Our longevity and numbers seem to add time to the universe itself. […]

  9. […] in the universe.   If we combine these two discoveries with the understanding of planet hunter Dimitar Sasselov, who thinks that not only are we at the very beginning of the prime period for life in the universe […]

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