The Human Condition:

The Wages of Immortality – June 7, 2015

Immortal dream

Fact is, all of us humans—as well as every other living thing on this planet—will eventually die. Actually, death could be considered one of the defining factors of this strange condition we call life: that it can end. For life is not simply a state of being or a gift of special, magical power, such as implied by the phrase “the spark of life,” or the animating spirit that Rabbi Loeb instilled in the inert clay of the Golem of Prague. Instead, life is a process. Life is a series of relationships fitting together various electrochemical energy potentials, actions and reactions, and feedback loops in a moment-to-moment, cell-by-cell succession that will exist for as long as the organism receives the necessary inputs and will end when those inputs stop or the series breaks down.

I’m sorry to be so mechanistic about this, but whether you are an amoeba, nematode, lobster, llama, cat, dog, or human being, this is what it means to be alive. And the part that you most cherish as “you”—your mind, your memories, hopes and fears, aspirations and achievements—simply refers to the moment-by-moment, cell-by-cell variations in energy potentials, actions and reactions, and feedback loops located in your central nervous system and occupied with processing the visual, aural, chemical, and tactile sensations which your body’s sense organs send into that nerve nexus.

Perhaps, when the brain and those sense organs die, those potentials, actions, and loops will continue processing in some other dimension, driven by some other form of energy. But that’s a matter for speculative physics and metaphysics. What we actually know about biology and the physical self is that it arises from the conjunction of egg and sperm, each of which possesses embedded chemical instructions. The organism develops and differentiates by following those instructions, as well as by gathering nutrients from and experiencing changes in the surrounding environment, and by exercising the decision-making potential of the nervous system to change and improve its relationship with the environment. The body eventually slows and decays through continued contact with that external environment and its insults. And finally, that series of life-sustaining events breaks down, and the organism stops.

We all have this to look forward to. For some of us it’s a terror, because life is so sweet. For others it’s a comfort, because life has become bitter. For all of us it’s a reminder that life is short—perhaps destined to end by accident or misadventure within the next day or two—and our time is not to be wasted.

But how would human life be different if we lived forever?

To know this, of course, we would first have to determine the terms and conditions of this magical gift of immortality. Is it proposed that we might go on indefinitely—no slowing down, no internal decay, no ultimate breakdown written into our genes, with no lysosomes standing ready to hydrolyze our cellular materials1—unless we meet with an unforeseeable accident? That is, we would live a full and complete life until we were actively taken out and killed? Or is the proposal that we would become not only immortal but also invulnerable, that any injuries might heal immediately, that cumulative injuries would heal even faster, and that the dissolutions of major, decapitating, dismembering, dissolving, disrupting, and destroying attacks and accidents would flash by us or bounce off us like bullets grazing Superman?

In the first case, of immortality without invulnerability, we might become as fragile as Ming vases. If a long and healthy life can be preserved by avoiding accidents, confrontations, and bodily damage, then we would live as prudently as monks.

It is commonly understood that teenagers and young people are risk-takers and death-defiers precisely because they secretly believe or ignorantly presume they are immortal. And who can blame them? With forty, fifty, or sixty healthy years stretching ahead of a person, whose experience is based on a mere fifteen or twenty years of boundless health and vitality, then one can be forgiven for thinking life will go on forever. By comparison with all that one knows, the precious gift of three score and ten more of the same represents an unimaginably long time, approximating an eternity.

But a person who has some experience of living and fully realizes the nature of the magical gift of immortality—an undated lifespan, barring accidents and misadventure—would become cautious. When you have a chance at the gold ring, why waste it on a moment’s excitement in the rush of adrenaline? By the same token, what could be so valuable that you would give your life in exchange for it? Would you trade your everlasting life, this precious gift, for the sake of personal honor? To redeem a loved one? To defend your tribe’s or nation’s power, prestige, and prerogatives? To defend the planet? To save all humankind?

We can perform acts of personal heroism because we all know, deep down, that someday we are going to die anyway. If you are only going to live another ten, twenty, or thirty years—years destined to pass in a boring job, residing on a narrow street, taking care of a strip of lawn, and raising a sometimes quarrelsome and ungrateful family—then to sacrifice that life for love, honor, or all of humanity might be worth it. But to trade immortality? You would have to think long and hard about that. And the longer and harder you thought, the less likely you would be to take action. In the end, a person with an immortal but not invulnerable lifespan could be bought and owned for a whispered threat and the flash of a knife blade. Such a person would choose to live forever on his or her knees, at the behest of a stronger or more ruthless human being, rather than resist and bring it all to an end in a day.

On the other hand, if one could have both immortality and invulnerability, a person would become as a god. You would not only be careless of your own life and limb but of everyone and everything else you might hold dear—if indeed you cared seriously about anything at all. Think of the gods and goddesses in The Iliad. They play at war as if it were a game of football or poker, with no real consequences. They participate in the human war for fun, or motivated by the kind of loyalty you might show to a pet dog, or for spite and jealousy. And when, say, Diomedes wounds Aphrodite in the arm with his spear, she drops her wounded son Aeneas and flies back to Olympus. The immortal gods are fickle because, in a long life where nothing much matters, they can afford to be.

But when a person lives forever—whether by avoiding all accidents or despite suffering any imaginable number of decapitating accidents—he or she still must deal with the nature of time and experience.

Like that teenager or twenty-year-old, for whom the promise of another fifty or sixty years looks like eternity, our sense of time is proportional. When a six-year-old experiences the passing of an hour or a day, it seems like a long time, practically an eternity. This is because his experience and memory includes only a limited number of such days—just 2,190 of them to be exact, if he even can remember them all—with a proportionally limited number of hours. When that same boy grows to be a man of sixty, the years will seem to be flying by, because each one represents a smaller and smaller portion of his time on Earth. Time telescopes, and an hour is never long enough to perform any task in a really thorough fashion, while each day disappears in the three tasks you wanted to finish after breakfast.2

Imagine then, how immortality would further warp this sense of proportion. After a thousand years of life, what would an hour represent? A day? A year? And if we are talking about an immortality that truly approached eternity, and not just some minor doubling or tripling of the traditional three score and ten, what then would ten thousand, a million, or a billion years of experience do to a person’s sense of time? Unlike Einstein’s imagined light wave rider, for whom relativistic time slows down, the immortal mind’s experience of time would speed up, until interaction with other human beings would become nearly impossible. The people around such an immortal human—especially if they were not immortal themselves or of a comparable age—would disappear into a blur of associated memories.

An immortal human, whether by longevity or invulnerability, would be a significantly different creature than the life we know and experience. His or her perceptions, intentions, expectations, and desires would differ markedly from those of mortal men and women. Such a person would be another order of being and, for the rest of us, practically unintelligible and incomprehensible.

1. See the definition in The Cell: A Molecular Approach by Geoffrey M. Cooper (National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2000).

2. See The Years Rush By from January 5, 2014.