Immortality: Wanting to Live for Ever and Ever

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Sounds crazy, but some scientists are already working on the concept of saving the software that is our mind, and saving it much as we save current software. It could be downloaded at leisure and for our pleasure – or say, auto-downloaded. This is definitely going to be an exciting century

Continuing our reflections about ageing leads us inevitably to dream about postponing it and remaining ever youthful if not actually young and hoping that one could push off death altogether – in other words, continue to live forever. When we go back into history we find that this has been a subject of constant interest throughout the ages, and all sorts of attempts have been made to find the miracle formula for eternal life.

Mostly this has been about discovering a magic pill made from vitamins, hormones and such chemical supplements when they became known to science and medicine. Quacks have proliferated galore in this zone, and the real miracle is that many gullible people are actually fooled into believing them and using their so-called ‘remedies’! Once I saw a documentary about a couple who firmly believed that vitamins were the solution to youthfulness and long life, and showed the man displaying his daily supply of supplements and vitamins, which totalled nearly 30!! But judging from the wrinkles on his face at age nearly 50, it did not appear that his massive daily dose of chemicals was doing him any much good. But such is the power of blind belief – for there was no valid evidence for what he was doing – that he probably did not see the harm that he was doing to himself.

There is a vast literature about the subject of ageing and the related issues of longevity, death and immortality. Depending upon one’s interest, curiosity, expectations and hopes, or fears, one can swing from religion to popular writing to medicine or to science to inform oneself — and find solace or disappointment. As I wrote in last week’s article, there are social, medical and biological aspects of ageing – perhaps I should add philosophical as well, come to think of it – and they are all interrelated.

We have briefly covered some of the medical and social aspects. Currently a lot of research is going on in different laboratories around the world about the biological processes of the ageing phenomenon. One of the approaches is to find out exactly what happens at the most fundamental levels, zooming down on the cell – which is the building block of life — where it all starts, and from there going deeper to the molecular level. And we do not know where this will lead next, save to say that the (re)search can only be endless!

What is almost a truism is that nobody wants to die, and we all cling on to life very dearly, and pray to our Gods to make us live forever, and when disease strikes we tend to look up to the doctor as God. This is a very heavy burden indeed to carry, and woe betide the doctor who would assume this role – for he will soon find that he is on a pedestal of clay! Fact is, when people think of immortality, that is living for ever and ever, they imagine themselves living in the same physical body because they think that when they say ‘I’ it means the body – in other words, they identify themselves completely with the body. So the poor doctor is expected to make the body last, except that neither the doctor nor anybody can, but he is the only one who is made to carry the blame when the body eventually dies.

As much as it is painful, and frightening to accept the fact of death, the reality is that it is the greatest certainty in our lives: the only other one, as someone said (George Bernard Shaw?), is that we have to pay taxes.

In a recent copy of the British journal The Economist, there is a review of a book titled ‘Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilisations’ written by Stanley Cave. Here is an extract from the review: ‘Stanley Cave, a British philosopher, argues that man’s various tales of immortality can be boiled down into four basic “narratives”. The first is the simplest, in theory at least: do what the medieval alchemists never managed and discover an elixir to simply avoid dying. The second concerns resurrection, or coming back to life after dying, a belief found in all the three Abrahamic religions. The idea of an immaterial soul that can persist through death dates back, in a formal form, at least to Plato… His fourth narrative deals with immortality through achievement, by becoming so famous that one’s name lives on through the ages.’

In an earlier article about this topic, I wrote that ‘A combination of genetic tweaking and calorie restriction in one threadlike worm, C. elegans — which is about one millimeter long and is found abundantly in soil and on the seafloor – was found to extend its lifespan by nearly eight to ten times. If such were applicable to humans, theoretically we could live up to 700 to 800 years! Anybody for the trial?’

Avoiding dying altogether is unlikely, and so life extension by a combination of evidence-based sane living with some help from scientific and medical discoveries seems to be the more plausible possibility.

As for resurrection on the day of judgement, which implies, according to the Economist review, the ‘literal recreation, by God, of people’s dead bodies,’ some of whom will go to paradise and others to hell, scientists tell us that such recreation is not possible as it goes against the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

It would be nice to have a more precise definition or explanation of what exactly is a soul, and until such time as this mystery is elucidated, one cannot quite bet on it as an option. This leaves us with the most likely and perhaps most desirable form of immortality, the fourth option of one’s legacy and therefore name being remembered forever. But preferably not à la Hitler, or Saddam, or Ceausescu and numerous others of similar notoriety.

Is there any other option imaginable? The book review notes that ‘Mr Cave’s chief argument against the desirability of living for ever (even assuming it is possible) is the familiar one of boredom’ having ‘done everything there is to do, hundreds of times’ which will strike one down with ‘debilitating ennui.’

Got a point there, I thought. 800-900 years of daily routine of personal toilet and cleaning, of eating the same things all over again, of seeing for the umpteenth time the tourist spots around the world – one would need a break surely! On the other hand, suppose one were able to remain in a permanent non-physical state where some personal characteristics of one’s identity would be retained, where there would be awareness of oneself and feel contented all the time, not least because it would be possible to connect to one’s nears and dears instantaneously just through a thought process, and all the restrictions and limitations of being trapped in a physical body as we know it were not present – perhaps that would be an acceptable form of immortality?

Sounds crazy, but some scientists are already working on the concept of saving the software that is our mind, and saving it much as we save current software. It could be downloaded at leisure and for our pleasure – or say, auto-downloaded. This is definitely going to be an exciting century. We might even be able to say one day, hey see you in 2700!

Now let the imagination fly…

* Published in print edition on 18 May 2012

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