Immortality is the concept of existing for a potentially infinite or indeterminate length of time. Throughout history humans have had the desire to live forever. The most commonly conceived form of immortality involves a spiritual existence after physical death. Most people still believe in immortality of this type today.
Many people believe that they can achieve "immortality" through their legacy and achievements they leave behind. This view of immortality is vastly different than the others in that it places value not on the continuity of one's physical, spiritual, or intellectual "self", but rather on how one will be remembered by generations to come. This view of immortality is embraced in many Jewish philosophies. Another view of immortality concentrates on leaving offspring, or immortality via evolution, which is curiously similar to Richard Dawkins' theory of the selfish gene.
However, there has always been a different breed of "immortalist" one who believes it may be possible to avoid death altogether. These people believe in the possibility of immortality in a physical sense, rather than or in addition to immortality in a spiritual sense. Gilgamesh was one such as this, as well as many European and Chinese Alchemists (Gunpowder was said to have been invented by Chinese alchemists in pursuit of immortality). Juan Ponce de Leon supposedly was pursuing the fountain of youth when he travelled to Florida in 1513.
Causes of death
There are three main causes of death: aging, disease and trauma.
Aubrey de Grey, a leading scientist in the field of aging, defines aging as follows: "a collection of cumulative changes to the molecular and cellular structure of an adult organism, which result in essential metabolic processes, but which also, once they progress far enough, increasingly disrupt metabolism, resulting in pathology and death." The current causes of aging in humans are cell loss (without replacement), oncogenic nuclear mutations and epimutations , cell senescence, mitochondrial mutations, lysosomal aggregates, extracellular aggregates, random extracellular cross-linking, immune system decline, and endocrine changes. This is a long list, but it also appears to be complete. Eliminating aging would mean finding a way to deal with each of these causes. This is indeed a formidable task, but progress is being made.
Disease also is theoretically surmountable via technology. Human understanding of genetics is leading to cures and treatments of a myriad of previously incurable diseases. The mechanisms by which other diseases do their damage are becoming better understood. Sophisticated methods of detecting diseases early are being developed. Preventative medicine is becoming better understood. Neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's may soon be curable with the use of stem cells. Breakthoughs in cell biology and telomere research are leading to treatments for cancer. Vaccines are being researched for AIDS and tuberculosis. Genes associated with type 1 diabetes and certain types of cancer have been discovered allowing for new therapies to be developed. Artificial devices attached directly to the nervous system may restore sight to the blind. Drugs are being developed to treat a myriad of other diseases and ailments.
Most likely the hardest cause of death to overcome is trauma. The problems of aging and disease usually at least provide ample time to solve them, if the technology exists. But even in a postulated world where aging and disease were correctable conditions, getting shot in the head is not. In situations where time available to provide treatment is extremely short, the success rate of even advanced paramedical technology remains low. Unless technology advances to the point (via perhaps nanotechnology) that a body can automatically treat itself for severe trauma, then the time it takes to deliver a patient to a care facility will likely remain the overriding factor.
Types of immortality
Immortality can be divided into two main types: physical and spiritual. Physical immortality is the unending existence of the mind from a physical source such as a brain or computer. Spiritual immortality is unending existence of a person after physical death such as a soul.
Technological immortality is the name given to the prospect for much longer life spans made possible by scientific advances in a variety of fields: nanotechnology, emergency room procedures, genetics, human physiology, engineering, regenerative medicine, microbiology, and others. Contemporary life spans in the advanced industrial societies are already markedly longer than those of the past because of better nutrition, availability of health care, standard of living and bio-medical scientific advances. Technological immortality predicts further progress for the same reasons over the near term. An important aspect of current scientific thinking about immortality is that nanotechnology will play an essential role in extreme life extension. For example, Robert Freitas, a leading medical nanorobotics theorist , suggests we may be able to create tiny medical nanorobots that could go through our bloodstreams, find dangerous things like cancer cells and bacteria, and kill them). Freitas anticipates that gene-therapies and nanotechnology will eventually make the human body effectively self-sustainable and capable of living indefinitely , short of severe trauma. Some suggest we will be able to continually create biological or synthetic replacement parts to replace damaged or dying ones.
Some people believe that such treatments will not be available in their natural lifespan. Cryonics is the practice of preserving organisms, or at least their brains, for possible future revival by storing them at cryogenic temperatures where metabolism and decay are almost completely stopped. Ideally this would allow clinically dead people to be brought back in the future after cures to the patients' diseases have been discovered and aging is reversible. Modern Cryonics procedures use a process called vitrification which creates a glasslike state rather than freezing as the body is brought to low temperatures. This process reduces the risk of ice crystals damaging the brain structure. Many people who wish to become physically immortal think of Cryonics as a backup plan in case the emerging life extension technologies don't develop rapidly enough.
Some believe that biological forms have inherent limitations in their design--primarily, their fragility and inability to immediately morph to fit the environment. A way around that predicament may someday present itself in the ability to "exist" outside of the biological form. Over the long term, the biological nature of humanity may only be temporary; should technology permit, people may circumvent death and evolution, simply by taking artificial forms. One interesting possibility involves uploading the personality and memories via direct mind-computer interface. Some extropian futurists propose that, thanks to exponentially growing computing power, it will someday be possible to upload human consciousness onto a computer system, and live indefinitely in a virtual environment. This could be accomplished via advanced cybernetics, where computer hardware would initially be installed in the brain to help sort memory or accelerate thought processes. Gradually more and more components would be added until the person's entire brain functions were handled by artificial devices, without any sharp transitions that would lead to some identity issues mentioned below. At this point, the human body would become only an accessory and the mind could be transferred to any sufficiently powerful computer. A person in this state would then be essentially immortal, short of cataclysmic destruction of the entire civilization and their computers.
Quantum immortality is the name for the speculation that the Everett many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that a conscious being cannot cease to be. The idea is highly controversial. Theoretically given any potentially fatal event that could happen to, say, a quantum physicist, there will be possible universes in which the physicist indeed dies and other possible universes where the physicist somehow survives. As time goes on the physicist is dead in more and more of all possible universes due to random accidents and aging, however because there are infinite possibilities, there will always be at least one universe in which the physicist miraculously lives another day. The idea behind quantum immortality is that the physicist would only be able to experience the universes in which he survives, even though they may be an increasingly small subset of the possible universes. In this way, the physicist would appear from his own standpoint to be living forever. Some of the potential ultimate fates of the Universe could present an eventual death with no means of avoidance no matter how unlikely, but even then in an infinite universe there could be some means of working around such a limit.
Long before modern science made such speculation feasible, people wishing to escape death sought what we might term mystical immortality, turning to the supernatural world for answers. Examples include the medieval alchemists and their search for the Philosopher's Stone, or more modern religious mystics such as Sri Aurobindo, who believed in the possibility of achieving physical immortality through spiritual transformation.
Rastafarians believe in physical immortality as a part of their religious doctrines. They believe that after their God has called the day of judgement they will go to what they describe as Mount Zion in Africa to live in freedom for ever. Instead of having everlasting life, which implies an end in the word last, the rastas look forward to having everliving life. Another group that believe in physical immortality are the Rebirthers, who believe that by following the connected breathing process of rebirthing they will live forever physically.
Some people believe physical immortality would not be possible or even desirable. Jacques Cousteau, in the preface to his book The Ocean World, expressed his meditations on physical immortality, as a part of life and its adaptive processes: 'Death,' Cousteau states, 'is fundamental to evolution;' and 'evolution is fundamental to survival'. He concludes that, biologically speaking, 'immortality does not present a possible means to avoid death': "Mortal or immortal, [an organism] must die." A counter argument to Mr. Cousteau is that if we were to have the amazingly advanced technology to sustain our lives indefinitely, it is not too far a stretch we could also have the technology to evolve within a single generation, without the need for survival of the fittest style evolutionary pruning of the gene pool. Michael Shermer believes there is no significant scientific evidence for the proposed methods of achieving physical immortality. He says about them, "All have some basis in science, but none has achieved anything like scientific confirmation."
Spiritual immortality, on the other hand, is a belief that is expressed in nearly every religious tradition. In both Western and Eastern religions, the spirit is an energy or force that transcends the mortal shell, and returns to either the heavens or the cycle of life, directly or indirectly depending on the tradition. Below we consider the perspective some of the world's most popular religions on spiritual immortality.
Christians believe that every person will be resurrected bodily: some to life forever in the presence of God, and some to never-ending consciousness of guilt, separation from God, and punishment for sin. Eternal damnation is depicted in the Bible as a realm of constant physical and spiritual anguish in a lake of fire, and a realm of darkness away from God. Some suggest that the fires of Hell are a theological metaphor, standing for the inescapable presence of God endured in absence of love for God. Catholic theology also teaches that there is a realm called Purgatory where souls who have accepted Jesus are purged of their sins before they are admitted into Heaven. Some Christian sects also believe in a third realm called Limbo (Latin: border), which is the final destination of souls who have not been baptized, but who have been innocent of mortal sin. Souls in Limbo include unbaptized infants and those who lived virtuously but were never exposed to Christianity in their lifetimes.
Judaism claims that the righteous dead will be resurrected in the "messianic age" with the coming of the messiah. They will then be granted immortality in a perfect world. The wicked dead, on the other hand, will not be resurrected at all. This is in contrast to Christianity where the wicked dead are still immortal and exist forever in Hell. This is not the only Jewish belief about the afterlife. Others do believe in a version of Hell. The Torah is not specific about the afterlife, so there are differences in views among believers.
Islam believes that everyone has an immortal soul that will live on in either Paradise or Hell depending on how one lives their life. Like Christianity and Judaism, there are no second chances following death in Islam. On judgement day one's place of existence for all eternity is decided.
Hinduism believes in an immortal soul. However, unlike the previously mentioned religions Hinduism believes in reincarnation. A Hindu repeats a cycle of life, death, and rebirth (a cycle called samsara). If they live their life well, their Karma increases and their station in the next life will be higher, and conversely lower if they live their life poorly. Eventually after many life times of perfecting one's karma, the soul is freed from the cycle and gets to live forever with God. Hinduism has no version of Hell, although if a soul consistently lives very evil lives, they could work their way down to the very bottom of the cycle.
Buddhism is similar to Hinduism in the sense that a person goes through a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. However, in Buddhism there is no belief in an eternal soul, but rather a collection of habits, desires, and memories. After death a person is reborn on either as a human or in some other form, depending on the fruition of karma.
Shinto claims that except for those who choose or are dispatched to the underground world of Yomi, every living and non-living beings may lose their body but not their Tamashii (soul) and they live together with mortal souls as an immortal being called Kami. Unlike the previously mentioned religions, Shinto lets anything to attain Kami status regardless of its existence before becoming Kami. Therefore, even those that do not believe in Shinto may choose to become Kami, as well as things like a rock, a tree, or even a robot. Some may be reincarnated for various reasons. Shinto has no version of Hell or a judgement day.
Concepts of immortality
Considerations of immortality usually bring to mind the idea of unending existence, a freedom from the concerns of annihilation and death. Often times, talk of the immortality of the soul arises in conjunction with talk of immortality. The ideas of science and religion find common goals in the perpetuity of man's existence.
Unending existence is too simple a condition for immortality
As a thought experiment, suppose that clinical immortality was possible, in which through advanced life support machinery or similar, the bodily functions of a comatose human could be kept running in perpetuity. Is it good news to keep a vegetative human's heart pumping for aeons? According to the vast majority of ethicists, "Not at all," since unending biological functioning is not what is at issue in immortality. Ultimately, what one desires is some sort of permanent preservation of personal identity, not just unceasing metabolic integrity.
This brings up the philosophical issue of the meaning of consciousness. As another thought experiment, suppose a surgeon replaces part of a man's brain with a pacemaker (this is actually done to treat Parkinson's). After this procedure is done, the patient comes out of his anesthesia feeling like the same person. For the intentions of this experiment, suppose that doctors already fully understand the brain and are able to successfully move sections of the brain's neural network and memories onto hardware where they can perfectly emulate the "architecture" of the brain. Over a period of time, suppose that the individual has many more operations with the intent of gradually replacing parts of his brain with computer hardware. Eventually, the man has a brain made entirely out of computer parts. The man comes out claiming that he is the same person as before. He has the same memories and acts the same.
Now suppose that instead of replacing parts of his brain with hardware, he copies the entire brain onto hardware. The computerized version of this man's brain acts the same way, and claims that it is the same man who underwent the procedure. The original man is still alive, however. Are the machine and the man the same person? Are they somehow linked in conscious? These are the types of situations that illustrate the lack of knowledge concerning the meaning of consciousness that we as a civilization currently possess.
The freedom from concerns of annihilation and death is insufficient for immortality
Essential to many of the world's religions is a doctrine of an eternal afterlife. But well known narratives from Christianity and Islam show why freedom from annihilation and death could (in principle) not be desirable:
"The rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence."- (Luke 16:22-26 King James Bible Translation)
"Those who are wretched shall be in the Fire: There will be for them therein (nothing but) the heaving of sighs and sobs: They will dwell therein for all the time that the heavens and the earth endure, except as thy Lord willeth: for thy Lord is the (sure) accomplisher of what He planneth. And those who are blessed shall be in the Garden: They will dwell therein for all the time that the heavens and the earth endure, except as thy Lord willeth: a gift without break." - (The Noble Qur'an, 11:106-108)
Instances from other religions could be adduced. Mere perpetual existence is not enough. Ultimately, one desires that this existence be of a desirable quality. As the prevalence of suicide suggests, people would often prefer not to exist at all, than exist in a severely unpleasant environment.
When talk of a "soul" arises
When talk of a "soul" arises, immediately, concerns of psychology and metaphysics become relevant. Suppose, as yet, another thought experiment:
An engineer produces a wondrous, new, nanotechnology machine. At two key moments during life, he might eagerly announce, a human would step into this device. At the first trip into the device, a full molecular scan of all 7 x 1027 atoms  in the body is recorded. At the second trip into the device, ideally many years later, the molecular structure is instantly dissimilated. Furthermore, during this second trip, a reference is taken of the earlier scan, and an appropriate amount of organic goo is added or subtracted to precisely match the configuration of materials original to the 7 x 1027 atoms as configured at the first scan. As an application—Jones at 30 walks in; Jones at 30 walks out. Years later, Jones at 80 walks in; Jones (allegedly) at 30 walks out. Has the engineer done Jones a favor?
According to most ethicists, the engineer has not done Jones a favor even if Jones could, as it were, "wash, rinse, and repeat" this whole cycle indefinitely. First off, it is anything but clear that the human exiting the machine at the second trip is Jones. Call the person who steps out (whether he is Jones or not) "Jones*". Presuming that memory is a physiological structure encoded by neural pathways, Jones* would not preserve the memory of Jones, since Jones* would not have the encoded neural pathways of an 80-year-old, but only of a 30-year-old. Hence, all that Jones was (after 30, anyway) as the collection of memory experiences upon second entry into the device is lost; thus, Jones is effectively dead. Immortality would offer little if the best results obtainable were a recurring coda of temporal duplicates.
Second, even if the eager engineer were to modify his machine (due to popular demand) so as to configure all the neural pathways of Jones* to match Jones, this would still present problems. Jones does not want a perfect duplicate to exit the machine at the second trip, but Jones himself wants to exit the machine. Granted, if all were done discretely, Jones' wife, Jones' mistress, and Jones' poker buddies would think that Jones* was Jones, and even Jones* himself might think he was Jones, but thinking that X is true is hardly a guarantee that X really is true.
Third, the Jones/Jones* problem is at issue in religious accounts of resurrection. Since humans share substantial quanta of their atoms with others who have preceded them in history (i.e., coffins leak, eventually, and nature cycles the organic material back through the biosphere), any resurrection cannot use all the original atomic collection for each individual to be resurrected. New material would be required; thus, worries about a duplicate thinking that s/he was the original person arise for the pious as well as for the pagan. The theological answer to this objection is that either: A) it doesn't matter if all your exact biomatter is exactly the same at the time of resurrection as when you died, so long as your soul is inside. Or B) if God is going to use divine power to resurrect a slew of people he can use divine power to redivvy up the biomatter as well if that's important.
Apparently, on any account where immortality requires a remanufacture of a body in order to maintain character identity, seemingly insurmountable difficulties present themselves, especially due to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Some views of quantum immortality approach the general issue of immortality differently.
Symbols of immortality
There are numerous symbols representing immortality. Pictured here is an Egyptian symbol of life that holds connotations of immortality when depicted in the hands of the Gods and Pharos who were seen as having control over the journey of life, the ankh (left). The mobius band in the shape of a trefoil knot is another symbol of immortality. Most symbolic representations of infinity or the life cycle are often used to repreasent immortality depending on the context they are placed in. Other examples include the Uroboros and the phoenix.
Immortality in fiction
Immortal beings and species abound in fiction, especially fantasy fiction, and the meaning of "immortal" tends to vary.
Some fictional and mythological beings are completely immortal (or very nearly so) in that they are immune to death by injury, disease and age. Examples include various types of gods and the evil Cthulhu. Sometimes such powerful immortals can only be killed by each other, as is the case with the Q from the Star Trek series. Even if something can't be killed, a common plot device involves putting an immortal being into a slumber or limbo, as is done with Sauron in J.R.R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Storytellers often make it a point to give weaknesses to even the most indestructible of beings. For instance, the greek hero Achilles was supposed to be invincible, yet his enemies were able to use his infamous weakness to slay him.
Many fictitious species are said to be immortal if they cannot die of old age, even though they can be killed through other means, such as injury (known in some role playing games as "limited immortality"). Modern fantasy elves are an example of such a species, though in some cases they have a long but finite lifespan. Other creatures, such as vampires and the immortals in the film Highlander, can only die from specific injuries. The list of such injuries for vampires varies somewhat on the particular work or inspiring mythos; for example a stake through the heart may be anywhere from incapicitating to instantly fatal.
A fictional creature might also be considered immortal if its life span is just unimaginably long. For instance, the dragons in some fantasy works can eventually die of old age, but often their lifespan is measured in the thousands of years (or perhaps longer), so they're considered immortal by shorter lived species (such as humans). Elves and other fae in some works also fall into this category. Beings like this often remind humans of their greatest weaknesses by uttering the derisive cliché "mere mortals".
Immortality can be used as a prize, something to be earned by great achievement. Legendary heroes, great magicians and wise elders sometimes rise to the ranks of immortality in fiction and mythology. It can be the reward at the end of a great quest, such as the quest for the Holy Grail or the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh. When immortality is something that can be bought, works of fiction will often make judgements regarding the high price that must be paid. Immortality is often the desire of evil characters as well. If immortality is something that can be earned, then it can also be taken away, much to the dismay of many an immortal villain.
Since immortality is seen as a desire of humanity, themes involving immortality often explore the disadvantages as well as the advantages of such a trait. Sometimes immortality is used as a punishment, or a curse that might be intended to teach a lesson. It is not uncommon to find immortal characters yearning for death.
Stories about immortality can also explore the possibilities and consequences of living for vast spans of time.
In Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, the inhabitants of the island of Immortals (near Japan) don't die, but they age and became ill, demented and a nuisance to themselves and those surrounding them. Swift presents immortality as a curse rather than a blessing.
In the film Highlander, the immortal main character grows cynical after seeing friends and lovers grow old and die.
Tezuka Osamu's lifework Phoenix (known in Japan as Hi no Tori) had a phoenix whose blood would provide immortality, in various age, many "heroes" and "heroines" would strive for immortality only to realize that there is something beyond eternal life. In a story titled "Raise hen", lit. "next world story", the last remaining human male who survived a holocaust and blessed or cursed with immortality through the phoenix blood, would create another beginning of life. In an immortal form, he would see slugs who gained intelligence to yet destroy themselves again in another holocaust. He would seed the earth again with life that would become present day human, meaning us and leave the earth for good to join his sweetheart who passed away billions of years ago in something like a heaven.
- Milbourne Christopher . 1979. Search for the Soul, New York: Thomas Crowell. ISBN 069001760x
Ben Bova. 2000. Immortality: How Science Is Extending Your Life Span-and Changing the World. New York: Avon. ISBN 0380793180
- R. Michael Perry . 2000. Forever For All: Moral philosophy, Cryonics, and the Scientific Prospects for Immortality. New York: Universal Publishers . ISBN 1581127243
Paul Edwards. 1997. Immortality. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1573921300
Robert A. Freitas Jr.. 2002. "Death is an Outrage"
- Alexander, Brian. 2003. Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion. Basic Books. ISBN 0738207616
- Hall, Stephen S. 2003. Merchants of Immortality: Chasing the Dream of Human Life Extension. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0618095241
- Immortality Institute. 2004. The Scientific Conquest Of Death. Libros En Red. ISBN 9875611352
- West, Michael D. 2003. The Immortal Cell: One Scientist's Quest to Solve the Mystery of Human Aging. Doubleday. ISBN 0385509286
- Extropy Institute. EXTROPY: The Journal of Transhumanist Thought.
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04