Why immortality would be terrible

Some people think it would be nice if humans could live forever. I’ve heard of people in Silicon Valley trying to work on ways to allow people to live indefinitely.

I think immortality is actually a real bad idea, and I think these Silicon Valley guys’ endeavor is naive and crazy. I’ll explain why, starting with total immortality (which is impossible, for reasons I’ll describe) and then turning to the idea of an indefinite lifespan (which theoretically is possible).

To me, the most glaring and obvious problem with immortality is the inevitability of something happening to you that’s both really bad and basically permanent. For example, imagine that 62,000 years into your life, you’re on a boat by yourself. The boat sinks to the bottom of the ocean and traps you. No one but you knows that this happened, so you spend the rest of eternity trapped at the bottom of the ocean. Or think about the inevitably of eventually being falsely accused of murder and spending the rest of eternity in prison. I can even imagine a war where prisoners of war are hooked up to torture machines that torture them for the rest of eternity. Those things would obviously be really bad.

I also imagine that an eternal life would mean an infinite accumulation of emotional pains and regrets. As I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed that I have a growing backlog of regrets that my brain seems to enjoy picking from at random and surfacing to me in my mind periodically. Imagine making some huge regretful error at age 19 and then having to live with that mental burden for the next 1000, 100,000, 100 billion years.

Plus there are the logistical issues. If we somehow figured out how to get people to live forever, it’s still true that every star in the universe will eventually burn out. Then what? Even the idea of uploading a person’s consciousness onto a computer for eternal habitation doesn’t answer that problem.

I think death is actually perfect. You’re guaranteed that nothing that bad can happen to because either the bad thing will kill you or you’ll eventually die some other way and be done suffering. Death is nature’s “escape hatch”. You can accumulate a lifetime of mental weight, but then the slate is wiped clean. The “reset button” gets hit when someone dies and a baby is born.

I didn’t mention an obvious thing about immortality: it’s a physical impossibility because there’s no way a body could survive complete destruction. Even if you move consciousness to computers, the physical computers themselves aren’t absolutely impervious to destruction. It seems that the “next best thing” is an indefinite lifespan. I’ll explain why I don’t think an indefinite lifespan would be better than a normal human lifespan.

I suppose that if we figure out how to make humans live indefinitely, then that will necessarily mean that people won’t ever die of disease. So the only causes of death would be accidents, murder and suicide. So from the moment you’re old enough to understand it, you’ll be aware that your life will, as an absolute certainty, end in an accident or murder or suicide, most likely an accident (or maybe most likely suicide). To me this idea seems quite uncomfortable. I personally much prefer the idea that the most likely scenario of my death is just a faint petering out, “dying of old age”.

Also, as you get older, more of your friends and family would be dead the older you got. This is of course the way it is now. It would be more pronounced if indefinite life were possible. A person who managed to live to 5,000 would probably have very few 5,000 year-old peers. If you started life with 250 people you cared about and 0.1% of them died each year, it would take, by my calculations, about 6,000 years for almost all of them to die. Then you’d just be super lonely from then on. You could always make new friends, I suppose, but they’d all be much younger, and from a different world.

So, although I often get quite uncomfortable when I think about the reality that I’ll inevitably die, I find it comforting to consider that, among the (non-supernatural) alternatives, it’s probably actually the best possible way for life to be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.