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Climbing Mount Immortality

How awareness of our mortality
may be a major driver of civilization
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IMAGINE YOURSELF DEAD. What picture comes to mind? Your funeral with a casket surrounded by family and friends? Complete darkness and void? In either case, you are still conscious and observing the scene. In reality, you can no more envision what it is like to be dead than you can visualize yourself before you were born. Death is cognitively nonexistent, and yet we know it is real because every one of the 100 billion people who lived before us is gone. As Christopher Hitchens told an audience I was in shortly before his death, “I’m dying, but so are all of you.” Reality check.

In his book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization (Crown, 2012), British philosopher and Financial Times essayist Stephen Cave calls this the Mortality Paradox. “Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible,” Cave suggests. We see it all around us, and yet “it involves the end of consciousness, and we cannot consciously simulate what it is like to not be conscious.”

The attempt to resolve the paradox has led to four immortality narratives:

  1. Staying alive: “Like all living systems, we strive to avoid death. The dream of doing so forever—physically, in this world—is the most basic of immortality narratives.”
  2. Resurrection: “The belief that, although we must physically die, nonetheless we can physically rise again with the bodies we knew in life.”
  3. Soul: The “dream of surviving as some kind of spiritual entity.”
  4. Legacy: “More indirect ways of extending ourselves into the future” such as glory, reputation, historical impact or children.

All four fail to deliver everlasting life. Science is nowhere near reengineering the body to stay alive beyond 120 years. Both religious and scientific forms of resurrecting your body succumb to the Transformation Problem (how could you be reassembled just as you were and yet this time be invulnerable to disease and death?) and the Duplication Problem (how would duplicates be different from twins?). “Even if DigiGod made a perfect copy of you at the end of time,” Case conjectures, “it would be exactly that: a copy, an entirely new person who just happened to have the same memories and beliefs as you.” The soul hypothesis has been slain by neuroscience showing that the mind (consciousness, memory and personality patterns representing “you”) cannot exist without the brain. When the brain dies of injury, stroke, dementia or Alzheimer’s, the mind dies with it. No brain, no mind; no body, no soul.

That leaves the legacy narrative, of which Woody Allen quipped: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it by not dying.” Nevertheless, Cave argues that legacy is the driving force behind creative works of art, music, literature, science, culture, architecture and other artifacts of civilization. How? Because of something called Terror Management Theory. Awareness of one’s mortality focuses the mind to create and produce to avoid the terror that comes from confronting the mortality paradox that would otherwise, in the words of the theory’s proponents—psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski—reduce us to “twitching blobs of biological protoplasm completely perfused with anxiety and unable to effectively respond to the demands of their immediate surroundings.”

Maybe, but human behavior is multivariate in causality, and fear of death is only one of many drivers of creativity and productivity. A baser evolutionary driver is sexual selection, in which organisms from bowerbirds to brainy bohemians engage in the creative production of magnificent works with the express purpose of attracting mates—from big blue bowerbird nests to big-brained orchestral music, epic poems, stirring literature and even scientific discoveries. As well argued by evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller in The Mating Mind (Anchor, 2001), those that do so most effectively leave behind more offspring and thus pass on their creative genes to future generations. As Hitchens once told me, mastering the pen and the podium means never having to dine or sleep alone.

Given the improbability of the first three immortality narratives, making a difference in the world in the form of a legacy that changes lives for the better is the highest we can climb up Mount Immortality, but on a clear day you can see forever.

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The Immortalist

A Review of Transcendent Man: A Film About the Life and Ideas of Ray Kurzweil. Produced by Barry Ptolemy, Music by Philip Glass, inspired by the book The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil. Digital release March 1, DVD release May 25.

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Beware the prophet who proclaims the end of the world, the apocalypse, doomsday, judgment day, the second coming, the resurrection, or the Biggest Thing to Happen to Humanity ever will happen in the prophet’s own lifetime. It is our natural inclination to assume that we are special and that our generation will witness the new dawn, but the Copernican Principle tells us that we are not special. Thus, the chances that even a science-based prophecy such as that proffered by the futurist, inventor, and scientistic visionary extraordinaire Ray Kurzweil—that by 2029 we will have the science and technology to live forever—is unlikely to be fulfilled.

Transcendent Man is Barry Ptolemy’s beautifully crafted and artfully edited documentary film about Kurzweil and his quest to save humanity. If you enjoy contemplating the Big Questions in Life from a scientific perspective, you will love this film. Accompanied by the eerily haunting music of Philip Glass who, appropriately enough, also scored Errol Morris’ film The Fog of War—about another bigger-than-life character who thought he could mold the world through data-driven decisions, Robert McNamara—Transcendent Man pulls viewers in through Kurzweil’s visage of a future in which we merge with our machines and vastly extend our longevity and intelligence to the point where even death will be defeated. This point is what Kurzweil calls the “singularity” (inspired by the physics term denoting the infinitely dense point at the center of a black hole), and he arrives at the 2029 date by extrapolating curves based on what he calls the “law of accelerating returns.” This is “Moore’s Law” (the doubling of computing power every year) on steroids, applied to every conceivable area of science, technology and economics.

Ptolemy’s portrayal of Kurzweil is unmistakably positive, but to his credit he includes several critics from both religion and science. From the former, a radio host named Chuck Missler, a born-again Christian who heads the Koinonia Institute (“dedicated to training and equipping the serious Christian to sojourn in today’s world”), proclaims: “We have a scenario laid out that the world is heading for an Armageddon and you and I are going to be the generation that’s alive that is going to see all this unfold.” He seems to be saying that Kurzweil is right about the second coming, but wrong about what it is that is coming. (Of course, Missler’s prognostication is the N+1 failed prophecy that began with Jesus himself, who told his followers (Mark 9:1): “Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.”) Another religiously-based admonition comes from the Stanford University neuroscientist William Huribut, who self-identifies as a “practicing Christian” who believes in immortality, but not in the way Kurzweil envisions it. “Death is conquered spiritually,” he pronounced.

On the science side of the ledger, Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sagely notes: “What Ray does consistently is to take a whole bunch of steps that everybody agrees on and take principles for extrapolating that everybody agrees on and show they lead to things that nobody agrees on.” Likewise, the estimable futurist Kevin Kelly, whose 2010 book What Technology Wants paints a much more realistic portrait of what our futures may (or may not) hold, asks rhetorically “What happens in 40 years from now and Ray dies and doesn’t have his father back? What does all this mean? Was he wrong? Well, he was right about some things. But in my observation the precursors of those technologies that would have to exist simply are not here. Ray’s longing for this, his expectation, is heartwarming, but it isn’t going to happen.” Kelly agrees that Kurzweil’s exponential growth curves are accurate but that the conclusions and especially the inspiration drawn from them are not. “He seems to have no doubts about it and in this sense I think he is a prophetic type figure who is completely sure and nothing can waiver his absolute certainty about this. So I would say he is a modern day prophet…that’s wrong.”

Transcendent Man is clearly meant to be an uplifting film celebrating all the ways science and technology have and are going to enrich our lives. I don’t know if it is the music or the cinematography or the subject himself, but I found Transcendent Man to be a sad film about a genius who has been in agony since the premature death of his father at age 58. Fredric Kurzweil was a professional musician who Ray’s mother says on camera was never around while his charge was growing up. Like father like son—Kurzweil’s own workaholic tendencies in his creation of over a dozen companies starting when he was 17 meant he never really knew his father. As the film portrays the tormented inventor, Kurzweil’s mission in life seems more focused on resurrecting his patriarch than rescuing humanity.

An especially lachrymose moment is when Kurzweil is rifling through his father’s journals and documents in a storage room dedicated to preserving his memory until the day that all this “data” (including Ray’s own fading memories) can be reconfigured into an A.I. simulacrum so that father and son can be reunited. Through heavy sighs and wistful looks Kurzweil comes off not as a proselytizer on a mission but as a man tormented. It is, in fact, the film’s leitmotif. In one scene Kurzweil is shown wiping away a tear at his father’s gravesite, in another he pauses over photographs and looks longingly at mementos, and in another cut at the beach Kurzweil recalls the day his father “uncharacteristically” phoned him just days before his death, as if he’d had a premonition. Although Kurzweil says he is optimistic and cheery about life, he can’t seem to stop talking about death: “It’s such a profoundly sad, lonely feeling that I really can’t bear it,” he admits. “So I go back to thinking about how I’m not going to die.” One wonders how much of life he is missing by over thinking death, or how burdensome it must surely be to imbibe over 200 supplement tables a day and have your blood tested and cleansed every couple of months, all in an effort to reprogram the body’s biochemistry.

There is something almost religious about Kurzweil’s scientism, an observation he himself makes in the film, noting the similarities between his goals and that of the world’s religions: “the idea of a profound transformation in the future, eternal life, bringing back the dead—but the fact that we’re applying technology to achieve the goals that have been talked about in all human philosophies is not accidental because it does reflect the goal of humanity.” Although the film never discloses Kurzweil’s religious beliefs (he was raised by Jewish parents as a Unitarian Universalist), in a (presumably) unintentionally humorous moment that ends the film Kurzweil reflects on the God question and answers it himself: “Does God exist? I would say, ‘Not yet.’” Cheeky.

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Hope Springs Eternal

Can nutritional supplements, biotechnology and nanotechnology help us live forever?
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As a skeptic, I am often asked my position on immortality. “I’m for it, of course,” is my wiseacre reply.

Unfortunately, every one of the 100 billion humans who have ever lived has died, so the outlook does not bode well. Unless you follow the trend line generated by Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman in Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever (Rodale, 2004): “The rate of technical progress is doubling every decade, and the capability (price performance, capacity, and speed) of specific information technologies is doubling every year. Because of this exponential growth, the 21st century will equal 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate of progress.” Within a quarter of a century, the authors say, “nonbiological intelligence will match the range and subtlety of human intelligence,” then “soar past it because of the continuing acceleration of information-based technologies, as well as the ability of machines to instantly share their knowledge.” Biotechnologies, such as designer drugs and genetic engineering, will halt the aging process; nanotechnologies, such as nanorobots, will repair and replace cells, tissues and organs (including brains), reversing the aging process and allowing us to live forever. (continue reading…)

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Remember the Six Billion

For millennia we have raged against the dying of the light. Can science save us from that good night?
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Between now and the year 2123 a tragedy of Brobdingnagian proportions will befall humanity, causing the death of more than six billion people. I’m serious.

According to Carl Haub, a demographer at the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C., between 50,000 B.C. and A.D. 2002, about 106 billion people were born. Earth’s population is currently around 6.3 billion. Of the approximately 100 billion people born before us, every one has died. To the extent that the past is the key to the future, that means that within the next 120 years (today’s maximum life span), more than six billion humans will suffer the same fate. And there is not a damn thing we can do about it. Or is there? (continue reading…)

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Nano Nonsense & Cryonics

True believers seek redemption from the sin of death
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Cryonicists believe that people can be frozen immediately after death and reanimated later when the cure for what ailed them is found. To see the flaw in this system, thaw out a can of frozen strawberries. During freezing, the water within each cell expands, crystallizes, and ruptures the cell membranes. When defrosted, all the intracellular goo oozes out, turning your strawberries into runny mush. This is your brain on cryonics.

Cryonicists recognize this detriment and turn to nanotechnology for a solution. Microscopic machines will be injected into the defrosting “patient” to repair the body molecule by molecule until the trillions of cells are restored and the person can be resuscitated. (continue reading…)

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