My Thoughts on the Demise of Death

August 25 2008 / by Mielle Sullivan
Category: Culture   Year: General   Rating: 7 Hot

An honest assessment of my exposure to the extreme life-extension meme.

Since being exposed to the idea of extreme life extension, which admittedly was only several months ago, I’ve found myself reacting in a more skeptical and reactionary manner than I often do when confronted with other radical new futuristic ideas and technologies.  When I read about possibilities of faster than light travel, I get excited.  Predictions of nano-assemblers make me hopeful.  I find designs for colonies on the Moon and Mars fascinating.  But when I read about trends in regenerative medicine and nanotechnology that some experts believe will conquer death, I am not enthusiastic.  Instead I become very skeptical, nervous and even angry.  On one level, I am surprised that I could be anything other than overjoyed that ending death could be a possibility, I very much enjoy life and, as a living organism, I have a strong instinct to stay alive.  Yet I find it extremely difficult to wrap my head around the idea of life without death.

So why does extreme life extension make me uncomfortable?  I’m not, nor have I ever been a religious person, though I have respect for those who are.  I was raised by two atheists with PhDs in science and I haven’t ever held out hope for an afterlife.  It’s not that I don’t value human life – I value it very much.  As a humanist, I believe very strongly that each human life is sacred and unique and believe it is within our power, and is indeed our responsibility, to work towards giving every person as good a life as possible.  I also don’t believe I am a Luddite.  I am increasingly excited about technology in general, I love my cellphone and the new snazzier one I will someday get.  I love my computer and wonders of the Internet.  I’m fascinated by the promise of the Semantic Web.  I also embrace any technology that could cure diseases or repair injuries.  But when it comes to anything that may fundamentally change the way I am or the way people are in general, I am very hesitant.

I thought it would be interesting to explore some of the reactions, thoughts and feelings I have when pondering extreme life extension, as I think they probably overlap with those of the people who have been or will be exposed to these ideas.

The logic problem: Defying death seems to break down logic

When I think about the end of death, I find it hard to express myself in logical, objective terms. I am tempted to call my reactions against extreme life extension a “bias” because there is undoubtedly an emotional aspect and I do have a predisposition against the idea. But “bias” implies an illogical perspective – can considering death a certainty really be regarded as illogical?  I begin to think, “Hasn’t everything that has ever lived also died?”  Well, yes, except of course for the trillions of life forms that are alive right now. So the answer becomes not “Everything that has ever lived has died.” but “Everything that has ever died, has died.”  This answer is so logically recursive that it isn’t even that useful. 

But it does illuminate the point that every organism that is alive at a given moment has a somewhat uncertain mortality status – they haven’t died yet.  However, 100% of empirical data tells us that living things die.  Even for organisms that are older than human observation, like old growth sequoias for example which have lived thousands of years, we find evidence of older, longer-lived trees that have indeed died.

I realize that advances in regenerative medicine, if successful, would mark a change in the universal process of life and death and therefore the rules of the past would not necessarily apply.  But we must remember that death has been a certainty up until now—a logical, verifiable certainty like gravity or 2+2=4.  Life=death.  If we start to consider death as an uncertainty we have begun to disrupt the logical frame work our minds have operated under hitherto.  In other words, the end of death is very hard to think and talk about because it disrupts the logic we use to think and talk.  When we say “a life” or “a lifetime” we envision a linear, finite span. To talk about something that is alive indefinitely seems to be talking about something else entirely.

Natural vs Artificial

Like many secular humanists  I have a great respect for nature and I consider myself a part of nature.  I find nature serendipitous, wondrous, beautiful and brilliant.  I look at the last four billion or so years of evolution on this planet as a fascinating, complex, awe-inspiring system.  A system human beings have yet to really understand, let alone surpass.  In fact I wonder if even with our growing knowledge of DNA, nanotechnology and stem cells if we will ever completely understand every minute inner working of a cell or all the complex interactions of the worlds ecosystems enough to truly be masters of our environment. History teaches us that several of our attempts to beat nature at it’s own game have yielded unexpected consequences: pesticides kill insects but poison the entire environment; widespread use of antibiotics has created multi-resistant strains of bacteria; we are now in the midst of world-wide climate change because we could not foresee that burning billions of tons of fossil fuels would fundamentally change the Earth’s atmosphere.  Because of consequences like these, that I have more faith in nature than I do in human beings when it comes to controlling complex bionomics.  I know DNA technology and nanotechnology are both still in their infancy and that both of these could revolutionize our ability to control the very process of life, but I am hesitant to believe we will best the natural process entirely.

Having a respect for nature effects my attitudes towards the end of death in another way: I consider myself a part of nature.  I identify as a natural, organic being that obeys the laws of nature.  I do not wish to become an artificial being or remove myself from nature as this would seems to be changing myself entirely.  If I cease to be what I am and change into something entirely different to escape death, haven’t I, in effect, killed myself?  It is, I believe, for this reason I do not wish to alter the fundamental natural forces that govern my life process.

I realize that the moment I say I do not wish to alter the fundamental processes of my biology, I have to acknowledge that I have been tinkering with my biology my whole life: I have been treated for infections and diseases; I take birth-control pills to control my hormones and fertility.  And if my heart were ever restarted with a defibrillator, a procedure I would have no philosophical problem with, I would, indeed have defied death.  But living indefinitely, defying death not just for the immediate future or for the next few decades but the for possibly thousands of years, seems to break the most prime law of life.  Again, it seems to fundamentally alter who and what I am.

Real vs Unreal

Another issue comes to mind when thinking about extreme life extension.  Let’s suppose that, as some futurists including Ray Kurzweil have theorized, that in order to truly conquer death we will eventually have to “upload” our minds into computer/robot/silicon bodies.  Casting aside my earlier arguments about identifying as organic, let’s assume I one day do this to save my life.  If all the information of my surroundings is being interfaced with consciousness by a computer, what is the difference between my life and an elaborate computer simulation?  How can I be certain I am living in reality?  The same question arises when we think about a thin layer of nanobots surrounding us that could simulate experiences as has been proposed by on this site.  The minute we have mastered these simulations, how can we be sure anything we experience is not actually a nanobot simulation.

Though I can imagine that many people would volunteer to transmit their consciousness into an artificial body to avoid death, I am not sure if any would voluntarily enter a perpetual simulation. Yet, how would we really tell the difference?

Of course, questions of what is real and what isn’t are not new. People have been asking this question since the beginning of history. Right now our consciousness already enters the natural simulation of dreaming and it is often impossible to tell the difference between a dream reality and a waking one. However, I believe the question of reality takes on a new dimension as soon as we can artificially create real to life simulations.

Serendipity vs Control

There is one last conflict I find myself stuck on when I think about the end of death.  If we do indeed master enough biology, physics, computing etc. to fully conquer death, to truly make ourselves as immortal as we say we want to be will we have reached a supreme, unprecedented level of control.  The question that then springs to mind is this: in such a controlled environment, would anything at all happen by chance?  Would a world where nanobots protect our silicon bodies from accidental damage, where we have so mastered biology and physics that we can turn anything into anything else – would such a future be so controlled it would lose it’s dynamism? Perhaps I am taking my conclusion too far, but I think it is idea of a hyper controlled environment that makes us consider if Utopia would be hell. In a dynamic environment one is never bored, but in a controlled environment, one very often is.  Dynamism requires flux, change and chance, but flux change and chance are by definition a little bit dangerous.  As human beings we crave control, but ultimate control turns life into an equation and an equation is hardly a desirable life.


I do not intend to argue against the pursuit of technologies that could greatly extend human life.  I mean simply to shed some light on the philosophical questions, problems and concerns that I have encountered while thinking about the subject that I have seen addressed by the futures community, namely questions of identity, reality, control and the problem of framing and discussing the question given our current paradigm.  I think these and many other questions will be asked more frequently as the idea of extreme life-extension gains more exposure.  Comments welcome.  Indeed they are the entire point.

Does the idea of immortality make you uncomfortable?

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Comment Thread (18 Responses)

  1. I found your blog very insightful, and definitely made me reconsider some of the assumptions I had about life extension/eradicating death.

    From a philosophical perspective, maybe from a logical one, I see extending life as extending everything we enjoy in life (and everything we don’t). That seems too indulgent and selfish or ultimately wrong as we have accepted again and again that we will die, regardless of how strong our instinct to live is.

    When I encounter this meme I think about all those villains in all those movies whose sole purpose was to attain immortality, for greedy selfish reasons. And to combat it I try to think of the exact opposite, of people who would continue to positively impact the world.

    I like to think of the real/unreal argument as organic/inorganic (everything is real right? aside from imagination, even that is real, aside from the content of imagination, I guess)

    But even with all this said, I think your internal/moral battle with this is more important than our ability to develop this technology.

    Posted by: AJ0111   August 25, 2008
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  2. I’m pretty sure if we conquer death eternal life will not be forced on anybody.

    Posted by: johnfrink   August 25, 2008
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  3. All life forms on Earth die because they are unable to adapt to environmental influences. This includes what they are made of and the hostile neighborhood they reside in. It’s possible that on other planets with different environments, indefinite life spans have been achieved with life forms that may be unimaginable for us to describe.

    Humans will never achieve an indefinite lifespan with biology. Our long-life future will depend on developing bodies that are superior to nature, and this could happen as early as the 2030s or 2040s.

    Do most people want an indefinite lifespan? Maybe a better question might be do most people want to eliminate the pain, suffering, and death brought on by diseases and various forms of violence? I think the answer is a resounding yes.

    And would most people enjoy living in a healthy body immune from most dangers? Again, I think the answer is yes.

    I don’t think of eliminating death; I just imagine myself living in a healthy body without the need to experience suffering, pain, and death.

    Comments welcome.

    Posted by: futuretalk   August 25, 2008
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  4. Yours thoughts and concerns have been very eloquently stated and I share many of them.

    Change is difficult for many people to accept, and what bigger change could be proposed than to be offered the choice to evolve into something that is no longer human. Allowing non-biological systems to take over control of your body, to upload your thoughts into a computer, and forgo all biological processes is a scary proposition and one that should make anyone hesitate.

    What I love most of about being alive is free will. With that being said there is a great deal that is required of me that I would not choose to do if i did not have responsibilities to my family and my debit, but I do have choices in life.

    Being feed a digital experience of absolutely anything I desired would be a great distraction to an imprisoned mind. A prison is still a prison if its made block or a firewall. Who would hold the keys? What if your deleted? What if your hacked into? There are many questions that need to be explored before blindly jump at an offer that seems to be too good to be true.

    This offer seems to be to good to be true. I’d rather be free and dead, than to be locked into an enternal cage.

    Posted by: Kristof   August 25, 2008
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  5. Some ask, with all this technology in our bodies, will we still be considered human? Advocates say we will. Today, we enjoy false teeth, titanium hip replacements, cochlear implants, and artificial limbs. In the 2030s, some people will opt for a complete body transformation, knowing with confidence that their memories, emotions, personality, and consciousness will remain unchanged.

    Posted by: futuretalk   August 25, 2008
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  6. Kristof,

    You cannot base your ideas about mind uploading solely on “The Matrix” movie.

    Posted by: johnfrink   August 25, 2008
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  7. Futuretalk, I am confident in my desire that pain and disease be ended, but I am less confident I want death to end. From a personal choice perspective, I am even less confident I would want to escape death by becoming non-biological. How could I ever know with confidence that my memories, emotions, personality, and consciousness will remain unchanged? Such experiences are by definition subjective. How could anyone prove to me I would remain myself?

    I do want to end disease and suffering, but I want to do it by living in a hyper controlled world with a completely artificial body that may or may not contain my “self?”

    I think it is entirely different idea to upload your “self” than it is to get a hip replacement. I can’t see the two as comparable.

    Posted by: Mielle Sullivan   August 25, 2008
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  8. Even if we are able to stop aging, death will always be a part of our existence as at some point in time be it two hundred or two thousand years we are bound to step in front of a truck or fall off a cliff. I would certainly look forward to a dramatically increased life span as it gives us much more time to experience life without limits one day at a time. I would leave uploading our minds to a more adventurous individual than myself. Here’s to the future!

    Posted by: Rob   August 26, 2008
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  9. While I would be uncomfortable with the idea of immortality, I do agree that extended life-span/improved health are very inspiring ideas. I am not religious but it would just cause such uncertainty about what would occur after the time when I should die.

    Posted by: fantasywriter   August 26, 2008
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  10. It’s very true, one wont be able to ever truly know if they are living in a computer simulation or not. While what little math there is on the subject would indicate yes, it probably wouldn’t matter.

    The way one could be sure they were not in a simulation within our current universe would obviously be via designing and applying the procedure themselves, presumably via a nanotech upgrade of their current brain, a system tried and test by millions of years of evolution, by replacing, individually, and one by one, all the neurons with throttle-able and hardened copies of themselves, with as much attention taken as possible to replicate the original behaviors. This might lead to certain noticeable changes in your personality, but continuity of consciousness would at least be insured.

    However, “uploading” via destructive scan leads to a self no more you than, say Captain Kirk, born anew every time he stepped into the beam of the “transporter.” Used via computing, this leads to a self who is more force than human, invulnerable to almost all threats(via backups and hardened systems). While such a person would rapidly outpace the neural-upgrader, and may arrive much sooner, they would have attitudes on death quite opaque to you or I.

    However, due to their vastly expanding thoughtput(due to Moore’s Law expanding into the infinite) they might be able to discern a way to achieved the neural upgrade mere months after their upload.

    Hopefully, they would be sentimental enough to provide it too us.

    For both parties, death would still lurk, striking permanently at the neurals more often(and more finally) than the uploads, though the uploads might see death of continuity subjectively so frequently as to either ignore it entirely, or fear it completely, lurking around every corner, trying to take them again. After all, they had to die once to get here, their greatest loss might to be taken again, replaced by a second sad copy.

    Many would say the uploads could be numerous, while the neurals remain one. But this isnt true, once the upgrade was complete, they could carefully split along the hemispheres. Using the dual nature of the brain, they too could assemble an infinite hoard, destined to slowly drift apart.

    I SWEAR, I’m winding down

    In any case, while such people might be able to assert their humanity, and many would accurately claim to still be themselves(more even than there were originally);

    No biologist would ever tax them as homo sapiens

    I promise to expound later upon the possibility of said upgrades to transcend(or at first expand) their ancient neural nets.

    Posted by: tk421   August 26, 2008
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  11. Interesting thoughts tk421. I would love to hear you expound and put up a post or cross-post.

    re: your point that painstakingly recreating neurons would ensure transfer/continuity of consciousness – What about the notion that memes, or software agents, help make up our consciousness? If this is in fact the case, then neurons would only be part of a ore complex system and wouldn’t necessarily guarantee continuity.

    Posted by: Alvis Brigis   August 26, 2008
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  12. So maybe I missed something here. “Radical Life Extension” doesn’t necessarily mean that death is “cured”.

    Biological death is not a curable condition. Old age may well be, and I’m certainly looking forward to that, or at least hoping it will be developed sooner rather than later.

    Non-biological extension of neural activity… well is it life?

    cheers, Robert

    Posted by: rleyland   August 26, 2008
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  13. AJO11—I like the point you bring up about immortality being selfish. It’s difficult not to think that we have to die to make way for new life. I think it is possible that if there is a death of death, there will also be a death of birth.

    Johnfrink—you bring up a good point about eternal life being forced on people, but consider how we think of those that are healthy and don’t want to live out their full life-spans now?

    Kristof—I agree. Being completely “trapped” by the luxury of simulation is exactly what I would fear.

    Rob—It is interesting to think that death might be an eventual, inevitable accident rather than a natural conclusion. Not sure how I feel about that. It would bring the randomness of the universe more to light. Some futurists also believe that we will eventually have a thin layer of nanobots surrounding us that will even be able to save us from being hit by a truck. But I do think chance will probably always be a factor even if that were accomplished.

    tk421—yes I thought of the Captain Kirk in the transporter beam metaphor as well and it is apt. Biologically, we are never exactly the same person from day to day either as cells live and die and water and nutrients are replaced. Perhaps a slow controlled replacing of neurons would yield proof of the self. I would like to see you write a cross/counter post too.

    rlyeland—curing aging may be only the first step. And then, yes, the question becomes: how will we die if not by aging? Accident? Choice? Will we “die” if we chose to try to extend our neural activity through non-biological nets of some sort? I would argue that we would change so much that we will die as we know ourselves, at the very least.

    Posted by: Mielle Sullivan   August 27, 2008
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  14. First of all I want to thank you for expressing a thoughtful, well-articulated opinion on such a personal and potentially controversial topic. Though I respect your views as well as your willingness to critically examine them and certainly wouldn’t consider you a luddite, I strongly disagree with your conclusions – here’s why:

    The Logic Problem You’re correct to note that radical life extension represents a profound paradigm shift for the world but that doesn’t necessarily imply the disruptive influence to our thought processes that you allude to. After all, the same argument could be made that scarcity, sickness, and violence have all been prerequisites of life that may soon be eliminated though you don’t seem to come to the same conclusion that doing so will make you less of a logical human being. Regardless of whether or not we are ever able to indefinitely extend the human lifespan, I sincerely hope that I will always be able to define my humanity by something other than the inevitability of death.

    Natural vs. Artificial It’s interesting to me that, though I too consider myself to be a secular humanist, I view “nature” in a completely different light – as something random, brutish, and devoid of beauty or wonder. Concepts like Beauty, Creativity, and Love are at once the most artificial and compelling aspects of Life. To be sure, there are merits to such a merciless, blind process as evolution by natural selection – chiefly its ability to create a species capable of dismantling the process in favor of something more “enlightened” – but none of its attributes are worthy of emulating just for the sake of their being “natural”.

    Real vs Unreal Let’s face it, we’re already living in a simulation. Perhaps the software is running on meat instead of a silicon or computronium based substrate but the end result is the same – there simply is no one to one correlation between the artifacts of our minds and the “stuff out there”. That’s not to say that they’re completely unrelated, just that there is no inherent property of matter or energy that directly corresponds to “deliciousness”, “redness”, “loudness”, or “prettiness” and yet those qualia are so incredibly instrumental in shaping our universe. Your question of how we can know what is or is not simulated is, in my opinion, moot – everything I care about most is already “simulated” by my mind to some degree or another and viewing it as being somehow different because of its substrate is nothing more that amino acid-centrism.

    Serendipity vs. Control I agree with you that humans have tried to replace randomness with purposeful intent where it has been efficient to do so but I disagree with the extremes you come to based on that assumption. For one thing, I don’t think it’s necessary to completely eliminate chance in order to preserve my existence anymore than I think “living on the edge” adds anything of real significance to my life. A little serendipity adds wonder to the world but a life that is so capricious that at any moment you might out of existence is a bit too neurotic for my tastes. Additionally, I don’t have any problem with empowering individuals to have greater control of their lives. I’ve always found meaningful (i.e. “controlled”) representations of art, for instance, far more powerful and engaging than a random assortment of hodge podge.

    Conclusion The questions you’ve raised are all valid and worth consideration by everyone (even ardent proponents of radical life extension) but I can’t help thinking how insignificant they seem compared to the absurdity inherent in the question of what the “ultimate age” will be, past which society will not allow you to continue living, regardless of how healthy and happy you are, lest you become something less than “human”.

    Posted by: madsci23   August 27, 2008
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  15. People or consciousnesses will die by other means tan ageing. It is wrong to talk about immortality. What will happens is the control and reverse of the process of ageing and the cures for diseases. But there will always been accidents, crimes, external phenomena that can kill anybody.

    Posted by: Atilio   August 29, 2008
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  16. I thoughts on immortality are a little different from most. I am 100% enthusiastic about regenerative medicine and the use of bio/nano to eliminate aging and death. I really do not view myself as being a part of any sort of “natural order” that requires that I sacrifice my freedom and vitality for it.

    However, I find the idea of uploading and living as software in virtual reality to be quite creepy.

    Posted by: kurt9   August 29, 2008
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  17. What an enjoyable self-analysis! Thanks for thinking and posting. I’m pretty simple when it comes to the question of how long I want to live. I basically want to live as long as I want to and then I want to die. At the moment, we don’t have that option, and until we do, the points we bring up are largely moot. That technology may make this an imminently appropriate discussion is what I find very exciting.

    Despite my desire to only expire when I want to “pull the plug” I also feel ‘bias’ towards the status quo. I’ve thought about it hard, and one of the main things I don’t like to think about is under what circumstances would I ‘pull the plug’, what level of suffering would it take for me to think that non-existence was preferable to existing. I suppose extreme boredom might be a form of suffering that would induce such a feeling but I find it hard to imagine in what is seemingly a fractally generated universe that we won’t also find fractally generated interesting things to do no matter what we ‘naturally’ evolve into.

    So.. ultimately, for me the most uncomfortable part of not having a finish line is no longer having the comfort of knowing that such a finish line is out of my control and I would need to take responsibility for that decision.

    Suicide is never a thought process those who value life are inclined to enjoy.

    Excellent post!

    Posted by: kevinperrott   August 29, 2008
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  18. I am familiar with the “being a part of nature” argument with regards to anti-aging. I guess the reason why this has never resonated with me is because I have never regarded nature as being benign or friendly at all. In fact, I often regard nature as being very nasty and cruel. Disease and aging reinforces my perception of the malignancy of nature.

    Also, animals in nature tend to die in nasty ways.

    The other reason is I like freedom and openness. I like to be healthy and vital and have the freedom to live whatever life I want and to go wherever I want to go. I do not being required to sacrifice my freedom and openness on the alter of cruel god of nature.

    Posted by: kurt9   August 29, 2008
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