How to Become Immortal

    In the last few years, a number of different organizations have launched projects to end aging and radically extend human longevity. Google’s Calico Labs is perhaps the most well-known effort, followed by Aubrey De Grey’s SENS foundation—but many others are working on the same problem under less obvious terms.

    If these efforts were to succeed, humanity might become biologically immortal.

    That statement might be a bit misleading. “Biologically immortal” doesn’t mean that humans stop dying. It simply means that there is no fixed end of human life—that medicine is able to treat things like heart disease, cancer, and dementia in a complete way. After all, if those diseases were cured, there would be no more “natural causes” for us to die from.

    But we would still die for other reasons. We would still have accidents, walk in front of buses, and encounter hazardous road conditions. We would stop dying like our agricultural ancestors did (from disease), and return to dying like our hunter-gatherer ancestors did (from accident).

    I’m supportive of these efforts, which are simply continuations of our medical efforts in other areas, extending our ability to heal. I’ve even discussed this in terms of scripture and the Christian worldview.

    But the terminology here highlights a source of great confusion. When biologists say things like “immortal” and “human”, they usually mean something very specific. When the rest of us use these terms, they mostly mean something far different.

    When I say I want a more human legal system, I’m not suggesting that we inject homo sapiens DNA into the Constitution. When I say that “their treatment was inhuman”, I’m not suggesting it was done by wolves or elephants.

    Instead, I’m using “human” as a moral term, to refer to our highest ideals and expressions.

    Similarly, when I talk in a religious context about being immortal, I’m not talking simply talking about the biological causes of cellular damage. I’m talking about a sense of indestructible permanence—a guarantee of infinite life that is manifested in how we live and work and relate to each other.

    It should be obvious that no medical technology can fully deliver that.

    Biological immortality, after all, still leaves us exposed to death by drowning, fire, and explosion. Even if we were to somehow become impervious to those, we’d still be susceptible to all kinds of other natural disasters, from rogue asteroids to local supernovas.

    We’d almost certainly still be susceptible to death at the hands of other humans.

    And even if we thought we had settled all of those concerns, immortality requires a literal infinity of time. There’d simply be no way to know that you were immortal before infinite time had passed—you would always be at risk of encountering some new threat that could destroy you.

    Thus, from within a finite reality, there is simply no such things as a guarantee of immortality in the sense that we usually mean it. Biological immortality is one thing, moral immortality is something different.

    But does that mean immortality is forever out of reach?

    I don’t think so.

    In our above analysis, we missed something. We acted as if the medical technology had just appeared out of nowhere, and was administered by no one.

    In reality, of course, medical technology is administered by other human beings, who care—to some real extent—whether you live or die. And in reality, medical technology is developed by other human beings, who care about the value of human life.

    Even if these projects were run by sociopaths who were only in it for themselves, they are funded and supported by other human beings for whom it actually matters. Nothing we do is alone—nothing we accomplish is without each other. Every human project, organization, or institution, is a vast cooperative enterprise, ultimately reaching out to involve the whole human race.

    That doesn’t mean every project or organization is good. It means that no project or organization can exist without relying on the good of others.

    And that points us to the real answer.

    We are alive today only by virtue of others. If we heal our diseases, it will be by virtue of others. If we cure aging, it will be by virtue of others. If we become more resilient than we ever thought possible, it will be by virtue of others.

    If we fall down a well, we will escape by virtue of others. If our heart stops beating, we will be revived by others. If we sustain a hundred-year lifespan—or a thousand-year lifespan—it will be by virtue of others.

    Only the benevolence of others, freely working together for the greater good, will sustain us over the centuries and millennia ahead. Only this benevolence will prevent us from dying at the hands of an asteroid or supernova. Only this benevolence will bring us back from the brink of non-existence.

    Whatever means there are for sustaining ourselves, they will ultimately come up against some new threat or some unprecedented risk. And eventually, we will almost certainly die.

    But if someone or some larger community cares, they will push back that definition of death. They will restart your heart, reboot your brain, restore your missing limbs. They will do everything they can to bring you back—and if that effort fails, they will keep you in their hearts until there’s a chance that it can succeed.

    Ultimately, knowing that someone else cares about you, that someone else will protect you or preserve you, that someone else will fight for you and revive you—is the only guarantee that you will overcome death.

    The traditional notions of immortality were right.

    In the end, the only thing that can defeat death—the only thing that can make you immortal—is love.