Spikes & Trolls
Rose Tinted Games


Phoenix_ii We all believe in some sort of immortality, more or less, yet it is fashionable among certain crowds to mock and ridicule particular kinds of these beliefs. But is, for instance, belief in heaven more ridiculous or more dangerous than belief in technological immortality? Is belief in reincarnation as fanciful as skeptics would assert? In short, is our attitude towards different ideas about immortality in any way balanced? 

Let us begin by looking at technological immortality, the kind most likely to be believed by scientific materialists and exclusive humanists. There are a variety of ways this might come about, all at this time constituting metaphysical speculations about the future of technology. For instance, we might develop nanotechnology capable of repairing cell damage at the level of the proteins themselves, which could lead to immortal humans, or we could acquire immortality through transplanting consciousness in the manner of Rudy Rucker’s Wares tetralogy – destructively reading the contents of the brain, and then rendering it digitally.

Perhaps the appeal of this approach to immortality for those with a materialistic bent is that they offer relief against the fear of death, which lurks to some degree in all our psyches. Perhaps also, this is why we rarely stop to consider the implications of this sort of technology, for if we did find a path to immortality this way it would represent one of the greatest threats to human life as we know it (or at the very least, to human society as we know it). As we discussed previously in the topic of population, death is a vital part of the life process – there is an essential tension between longevity and reproductive rights, and the only way immortality could realistically be allowed to flourish would be to enforce sterilisation – to give up children in return for exceptionally long life. 

Yet even in this kind of scenario, death is still inevitable. Even an immortal being, in the sense of not being at risk from old age, must face death eventually – either from accidental causes, or from the eventual end of appropriate living conditions in the universe (from heat death, say). And would we even be human without the renewing cycle of death, to bring us each to our final rest, and the arrival of new births, to replenish and invigorate humanity? A society of sterile immortals risks becoming bitter and joyless.

By contrast, the Christian idea of heaven is a very different notion of immortality. In fact, it is many different ideas, since we have long since moved beyond the point of there being any consensus about an afterlife. Few if any people believe in the old doctrine that at a future time the bodies of believers will be disinterred from their graves and restored to life, to live on immortally (a belief that made the cremation of cadavers unacceptable). The sheer cost of burial in our ever more populous world may have helped force change in this particular belief. Today, Christian beliefs about heaven are generally of a less defined form; most feel that there is a place for their souls after they die, but few have specific ideas for what this would mean beyond the idea that death is not the absolute end. 

The usual cause of attack against Christian beliefs about heaven isn’t just that people hold faith in an afterlife, but that a significant number of Christians contend not just that one only qualifies for this prize by choosing the correct religion (and perhaps even the correct denomination) – what I have previously termed a metaphysical lottery – but also that if you lose this luck-of-the-draw game, your penalty is to suffer forever in eternal torment. There has, as Charles Taylor observes, been a marked decline in the doctrine of hell in Christian theology recently, but any driver through the deep south of the United States cannot fail to see roadside signs with messages such as “If you died today where would you spend eternity?” which clearly maintain this belief in a strict win-or-lose attitude to the immortality of the soul. (Note, however, that the immortality of the soul is guaranteed either way – it is just a question of how pleasant your accommodations will be!) 

To be quite frank, I agree with Hannah Arendt that this idea – be good and be rewarded after death, be evil and be punished after death – originated in Plato’s philosophy, and not in Jesus’ ministry. In fact, Jesus has precious little to say about hell, and as Samuel G. Dawson has noted, even what is attributed in this regard seems to refer to the fiery destruction of Jerusalem (which occurred in 70 AD, a few decades after Jesus’ death) and not to hell in its usual construed form, which is largely an invention of later Churches. The focus of Jesus’ ministry is on how we should behave towards one another on Earth; heaven is still alluded to – just not in “repent or die!” terms. 

Plato, in the Myth of Er which concludes his Republic, presents the idea of moral people being rewarded after death, and immoral people being punished (although without any explicit reference to a judging deity). The idea has a longer history, however, in Persian and Egyptian mythology, from where Plato almost certainly encountered the idea. The concept found its way into Christianity in the early fourth century AD, when the Emperor Constantine was faced with the challenge of elevating Christianity – which up until this point had been forced to exist mostly in the persecuted shadows – to the state religion of the Roman Empire. There was no definitive Bible text to refer to at this time (the synod that established this occurred almost a century later), so Constantine had considerable latitude in interpreting the various Christian texts and oral traditions into a coherent religious framework. In doing so, he drew in part from Greek philosophical ideas, including those of Plato, which had already had considerable influence in Rome.

There is little doubt that the psychological urgency created by the threat of hell was a driving factor in the growth of Christianity, and also the source of considerable atrocities conducted by the Church at various times throughout history. However, apart from the boorish behaviour of some modern evangelists who dogmatically maintain such an attitude towards the afterlife today, this kind of viewpoint no longer represents a consensus belief within Christianity. Most Christians have faith that they will be with God when they die, but they do not presume to know exactly what this means, and there is an ever-increasing tolerance for other religions – a growing recognition that being Christian might not be the only path to God. 

In the Dharmic faiths (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism) quite different beliefs concerning immortality can be found. In these traditions, although there may be an immortality of the soul akin to the Abrahamic religions’ concept of heaven (a parallel can be made between nirvana and heaven, for instance), reincarnation is the more prevalent belief: souls achieve immortality in the sense that they return to live new lives over and over again. What one thinks of this kind of afterlife depends to a great degree on one’s concept of the soul: clearly, people who have no viable notion of a soul cannot believe in any kind of afterlife, while some concepts of a soul are so broad as to make reincarnation not only plausible, but essentially factual.

Consider the mathematical mysticism of Rudy Rucker, who I mentioned at the start of this piece in the context of immortality technology. In Software, the Phillip K. Dick Award winning first book of his Wares series, one character notes to another whose father has just died: 

Potential existence is as good as actual existence. That's why death is impossible. Your software exists permanently and indestructibly as a certain possibility, a certain mathematical set of relations. Your father is now an abstract, non-physical possibility. But nevertheless he exists!

Reincarnation has even been the subject of scientific research, most famously in the work of Professor Ian Stevenson, who spent forty years investigating cases of children who claimed to have memories from a previous life, finding them on the most part to be quite compelling. In a typical case, the child has memories (sometimes including a name) of someone who died, usually in distressing circumstances – such as the case of a boy in Beirut who remembered dying as a 25-year old mechanic thrown from a speeding car. The details provided by the boy matched an incident that happened a few years before his birth with no apparent connection between the two families involved.

Of course, this kind of investigation is considered verboten by skeptics such has Paul Edwards, who dismissed the evidence as anecdotal. A commonly encountered counter-argument to reports of reincarnation is that there is no known mechanism that would allow for it - yet this puts the cart before the horse: we knew that objects fell downwards long before we had a theoretical framework to explain it. The philosopher Robert Almeder analysed these and other criticisms, and concluded that they all relied on the argument from personal incredulity – “I can’t believe this could be real, therefore it must be false.” More open minded critics at least acknowledge the need for more research – even arch-sceptic Carl Sagan recognised there was something worth investigating here.

Personally, I am somewhat agnostic about immortality in all of its forms. I am not convinced technological immortality is truly achievable (and am utterly unconvinced that is desirable), I find the evidence for reincarnation to be intriguing enough to warrant further research at the very least, and I find the idea of one’s soul joining God in death to be essentially true by definition in my belief system, as a consequence of what the terms “soul” and “God” mean to me, which says nothing substantial about what this would mean in practice. Even a scientific materialist could perhaps appreciate that if soul means “the information comprising my identity” and God means “the infinite” then saying one’s soul returns to God in death” is far from an outlandish claim (whatever this might mean for the individual in question!)

What is troubling about immortality is not the many different views of it that people hold, but the hostility some people display to those with alternative perspectives. Consider the fanatical Christian who thinks that everyone who believes differently to them is doomed to an eternity of pain in hell versus the atheist bigot who, believing that they know the afterlife is certainly false, hurls abuse at Christians for believing otherwise. The former justifies their boorish or even abusive behaviour (in the case of “Hell Houses” and other abominable perversions of Christianity) as being in their victim’s best interests, but fails to comprehend the harm they cause. The latter warns of how dangerous and misleading belief in the Christian afterlife must be while standing silent on the very real risks implied by technological immortality, preferring instead to behave as anti-socially as the Christian zealots they despise! It seems that whatever you believe, there is a flavour of bigot who will abuse you for believing it.

Almost all beliefs about immortality are metaphysical, and thus largely untestable, and to claim one has all the answers in any such a field is the height of hubris. No-one can see the future clearly, and no-one can see beyond the veil of death with any clarity either. Given that we are all in this life together, perhaps a more balanced approach to this issue would be to accept the cornucopia of beliefs about immortality as another aspect of the wonderful diversity of human life, and celebrate it all, either (for those of us who believe in transcendence) as the whispering presence of the divine in the immanent world, or (for whoever believes solely in the immanent world) as an expression of the tremendous creativity of humankind. Life is short enough without fighting over what will happen afterwards.

The opening image is Phoenix II, copyright (c) 2008 Shoshanna Bauer, all rights reserved. It can be found here on her delightful watercolour blog at www.shoshannabauer.com, and is used with permission.


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The big issue I have is not with immortality, but with human institutions setting themselves up as the gatekeepers - either to immortality, or to how pleasant it is. Assume:

1) my afterlife is infinite, but my life is finite (note this presupposes an afterlife rather than an infinite life);

2) my afterlife is consistent in its quality (as with the Abrahamic notion of heaven, though not the Dharmic notion of reincarnation where I can always fix things later);

3) my actions during my finite lifetime can make even an iota of difference to the quality of my afterlife.

If all of 1-3 are true, then it is entirely sensible for me to do whatever I can during my life to maximise the quality of my afterlife. Any form of toil and struggle; any pain; any martyrdom; all are acceptable.

If we then add:

4) There is a human institution that can advise me on the quality of my afterlife (and perhaps even change its quality ever so slightly)

then slavish obedience to the gatekeepers is an entirely sensible response.

I've no idea where I'm going with this; I'm just aware that it's a very unpleasant power game if any of 1-4 are, in fact, false.

I would say immortality is a good thing, but unfortunately I'll never have the frame of reference to make that judgement. I guess I'll just keep choosing to live until I don't.

"the very real risks implied by technological immortality"

I'm not sure these are so terrible as you seem to suggest, if they are real risks at all.

The only ones you mention are the risks of becoming bitter and joyless. Why do you think that would happen? I really don't think it would. I'll admit that some of the very-old people of my acquaintance are more bitter and joyless than younger souls, but that seems entirely explained by their increased physical frailty and consequent lack of freedom. I've known many who have remained intellectually playful into their 80s and 90s.

I do see a profound risk in resource and energy usage - particularly in the transition - but you seem to have assumed those away with the explanation that there'd be no children :-)

You may be interested in some thoughts I delivered in a lecture called "Some Practical Problems of Immortality," in 1998.

For my own part, I find technological immortality both highly desirable and well-nigh inevitable, though unlikely, alas in my own lifetime. This may have negative consequences for the species, or indeed the entire planet, but that's another story.

I'm tempted to think immortals who are bitter and joyless will find a way to die some how. When pondering the idea of immortality for myself, I always figured they key thing would be to keep interested in something. The way I see it, after traveling the world for a few hundred years, give or take, I'd travel to Mars and start terraforming. I mean, I would have the time to do it, right? Declare myself Lord of Mars or something suitably pretentious.

"this kind of viewpoint no longer represents a consensus belief within Christianity. Most Christians have faith"

Just a random pick of the generalisations. Wondering - how do you know these things about the greater Christian community? Are you on the Papal blogoshpere? ;P

I would be happy if I knew transcendent immortality was to be my lot - in other words, it would be nice not to fear death :)

One compelling argument for technological immortality is that it could be the only way that humanity escapes the solar system resource trap. This is thinking long-term, but going on for eons would require such thinking. However, thinking long-term is fine, but acting long-term on a large scale requires an institutional maturity that we seem to lack. It's not a given that society would mature if the people lived longer, but it's a better bet than what we have, where no one has the time to specialise in more than one area and thus all the best thinkers are never the leaders, etc.

I think you dismiss technological immortality in a way that goes against your seeming belief that "we will work it out" regarding over-population.

Your thoughts there sum as roughly - "we as a species won't run out of resources for our burgeoning population because we have the technology, and the ability to use it with the required imagination!"

To then turn round and say that - "technology in this regard (immortality) would lead to our inevitable destruction" seems topsy-turvy.

I've never understood why the standard christian afterlife model would have a short life on earth followed by for ever based upon those short years. To my mind it made more sense for a "soul" (or whatever you believe in its place) to spend nigh on forever making itself ready for a few short years of life on earth.

But then this, as with most of these belief systems, presumes this earth thing is the be-all and end-all, which is the defining stage upon which your existence is measured (or in my analogy measured-for).

As always we find it hard to see outside the box we live in, and get hung up on the box itself, and all the rest (if anything) outside the box is almost randomly attributed with whatever the most gifted orator/thinker can come up with.

The joy of technological immortality is that we don't have to die to see if it is right. We just need to live long enough for the technology to be invented... Which, ironically, for probably anyone reading this, won't happen.

So, it's the afterlife lottery for us. Has anyone managed to work out how to nerf the system and get several lottery tickets? :-)

Short of time now, I may have to hold detailed discussions on this topic at a later point. Thank you all for sharing your viewpoints!

As I hope is clear, the purpose of this piece was to recast this issue in a different light - specifically, to show that even scientific materialists/exclusive humanists have beliefs about immortality, and that these beliefs have risks attached to them just as any other beliefs about immortality. Plus, in any of these cases, the beliefs in immortality still act as a provider of existential security, which is something humans seem to need.

To those of you who challenge me to back up my claims that immortality is a disaster - how many of you have children? I'm guessing zero. :) Ask people with families what they think about a future world with no children.

Peter: I accept this criticism of Christianity here - when churches pretend to be in control of something that we can't even understand, there is a dangerous power game at work. But I think in the modern world, this is a lesser factor at play in religion than it was in the last ten centuries.

Michael: it's true, I am assuming immortality = no children. Unless we develop spacefaring technology on a scale far beyond our current theoretical limits, I think this is an inevitable consequence (and we could get to immortality tech a lot more easily than we can get the interstellar technology required is my instinct).

Of course, I made assumptions, but this was to drive the rhetoric. ;)

Chill: I'm certain immortality seems appealing when you assess it for oneself... but is it so appealing when extended to the whole of society? As for immortals choosing to die - clearly, this materialist "afterlife" isn't for people who don't believe in euthanasia. ;)

zenBen: "how do you know these things about the greater Christian community?"

I talk to Christians. :) I'm quite sure you are able to make broad generalisations about "classes" of people you talk to too. ;)

I also read a lot of articles and so forth about religious matters of all kinds, and I can confidently report that the Christian world is much more diverse in its beliefs than most people think. 75% of US Catholics believe it is okay to use birth control, for instance.

Good question, though - worth challenging. ;)

Neil: ah, now I never promised to be consistent in my representation of issues. :) In the population piece, I wanted to end on an up note, but in this piece I wanted to contrast one belief in immortality with another - because the theme was different, the ideas were developed differently, with a distinctly different tone.

In actuality, I am hopeful that the immortality problems can be worked out by future generations one way or another - but I do believe it is possible to cast this idea in a negative light, and it was necessary to do so in this piece in order to make the point I wanted to make, which is all beliefs are subject to ridicule from those with different beliefs, but that doesn't mean it's a good use of one's time. :D

"I've never understood why the standard christian afterlife model would have a short life on earth followed by for ever based upon those short years."

Well in the classical formulation, of course, you didn't get resurrected immediately - you waited for the end of the world, and then got resurrected (for eternity). Those who got a ticket to hell, however *did* have to suffer until the end of time - no waiting for sinners. ;)

"The joy of technological immortality is that we don't have to die to see if it is right... ironically, for probably anyone reading this, won't happen."

Ha, quite. :)

Thanks for the comments everyone! I'll try and find time to check out Ernest's notes on the topic later.

Best wishes!

"To those of you who challenge me to back up my claims that immortality is a disaster - how many of you have children? I'm guessing zero. :) Ask people with families what they think about a future world with no children."

Oh no! I expected far better of you, Chris, than an irrelevant ad-hominem response. :-)

Sorry - since teenage I've had a personal bugbear about people who used their status as a parent to claim some superior moral knowledge. (It bothers me even more now I am a parent myself.)

As with religion, it's an area where there is an awful lot of very passionate beliefs, and tolerance, mutual respect, and understanding between opposing viewpoints (e.g. "children are what makes life worth living" vs "childfree is the only way") is sadly rare but all the more precious for it.

Back on topic ... I'm sure you're right that vanishingly few parents would trade their extant children for immortality. But surely you're not saying that the life of anyone without children is necessarily bitter and joyless? Of course, people who want children and can't have them tend to be unhappy, but I can easily imagine that people growing up and being socialised in an environment where reproducing simply doesn't happen might be a lot less likely to want that - particularly if they know that's the price for their own immortality.

(And for some versions of technical immortality involving transference to a computer-based existence, there's a much reduced need for such a constraint anyway.)

Michael: Ha! The funny thing here is *you* are a parent and *I* am not! :D We both made unfounded assumptions about one another. ;)

My wife and I don't know if we want kids, but that doesn't stop me from recognising what a vital part of our social processes each new generation represents.

"But surely you're not saying that the life of anyone without children is necessarily bitter and joyless?"

No, I didn't mean to make this claim by any means, but rather the wider claim that a *society* without children will tend to produce bitter and joyless people. I would remind you that I don't have children, and I don't see myself as bitter and joyless! :)

I believe that the arrival of new generations is a vital part of what keeps society vibrant - just look at how stale the work of (say) film makers can become as they age. Consider how much more inventive the early Woody Allen films are compared to the later ones, and there are many similar examples.

Every now and then, culture is invigorated by new people bringing new ideas - that process is driven by the newborn generations who have the freedom to reinvent their culture from a new perspective. I believe an immortal society without children would become stale and dull, and this is why I suspect it would become quite bitter and joyless.

I accept your claim that people could become socialised to such an existence, but still believe that severe cracks would exist in such a society.

Ultimately, however, such a society is somewhat beyond our ability to imagine as it would not be possible to make an immortal human as we understand it - that is, there can be no immortal homo sapiens. An immortal human descendant would necessarily be a different form of life - homo immortalis. Their very neural architecture would have to be substantially different to ward off senility (which I have linked to the phenomena of overloading in neural networks, and thus an unavoidable information limit as our brains currently work). Thus, we're back to metaphysics. ;)

Many people - especially science fiction fans (and Rational-biased people in general) - tend to look at immortality as a gift, but as many great stories touch upon, immortality would also be a terrible curse. Denial of this happens most commonly in people whose sole concept of immortality is technological - the desire for existential security is great within us all, and that's really the theme of this piece: people in glass houses... :)

"And for some versions of technical immortality involving transference to a computer-based existence, there's a much reduced need for such a constraint anyway"

Indeed - in my sci fi RPG Outlands this happens - there are NeoZen temples containing the personality engrams of millions of people who can be consulted. In this setting, however, the engrams wait patiently for someone - anyone - to come and talk to them and and ask their advice and thus alleviate the boredom of their immortality. It's broadly satirical, I suppose. :)

There is an open question here as to whether a computer simulation of your consciousness is truly the same as you, but I'm certainly open to the idea that it could feel that way to the advanced virtual consciousness in question. I see this as far beyond the horizon of our current technologies, however, and thus once again metaphysical.

Thanks for the discussion!

"We both made unfounded assumptions about one another. ;)"

Indeed we did! That made me laugh, thanks.

And thanks for the response - no time to give a proper response myself but fascinating and interesting stuff.

Immortality is inevitable, as Ernest said. In fact, within 20 years we'll have an immortal mouse, and within 20 years of that immortal humans.

I recommend: www.sens.org

I'm personally a contributor to the MPrize, a fund set up to award work leading to immortal mice.

Another good site: http://fightaging.org/
On the left side you'll find a green box labeled "Objections Answered" where objections like overpopulation are tackled. In short, if humans can live forever, we'll naturally change our breeding, prolonging it as we've always done as our lifetimes have increased.

I fully plan to live 100's of years, and take extremely good care of my health in order to live long enough to reach what's been termed, "escape velocity."

Excellent news. Nice to see that everything will be ok.

Of course this is what the Usborne Book of the Future told me 25 years ago. Now I am old and bitter ;-)

Scott: thanks for the comment and the links! I accept that the technology may be inevitable, but that is the beginning of the discussion, not the end.

I'm curious as to whether either of the sources you cite here have addressed the problem of senility (neural network overloading)? If not, immortality is irrelevant - you still won't be able to be *you* for more than a century or so.

I read the response to overpopulation on that site and found it to be unbelievably naive. Randomly selecting a high upper bound for population doesn't help in the long run... The response relies in part upon the belief that expansion into space is a trivial future problem - this may be the case for future humanity, but it is purely speculative to assume this now.

If we're talking about immortality, we need zero population growth (or thereabouts) at some point - it is typical of believers in Progress to ignore problem areas by having faith in Progress to resolve the problem issues in the future, and this is why there is a neat parallel between this and other beliefs about immortality. We're a long way socially from a world in which this kind of immortality scenario can fly is my feeling.

But then, I don't share your belief that we are close to this kind of immortality, so I'm not that worried. :)

Best wishes!

"Of course this is what the Usborne Book of the Future told me 25 years ago."

hey, I remember that book in my local library when I was a wee lad! Wow, nostalgia. What a load of cobblers that turned out to be.

"The response relies in part upon the belief that expansion into space is a trivial future problem"

Whatever about the actual tech involved, the generations that followed would diverge very rapidly from Earth-normal. Really, humanity will be eaten by its own tech, whether it be through enhancement/rapid-evolution into unrecognisable forms, or just plain old pollution death.
Unless Luddism becomes really fashionable somewhere...

zenBen: Well now we're into speculation about future space expansion - and this is a much fuzzier part of our species future than is usually acknowledged... We tend to believe it's possible, but in fact it could be a far bigger hurdle than expected.

Just to indulge in idle speculation briefly, I would agree that spacefaring humans will diverge from Earthbound stock considerably, but I think there will be cultural factions that would remain on Earth - I think, for instance, that the Amish are here to stay. ;)

Best wishes!

"I think there will be cultural factions that would remain on Earth"

Oh yeah! Its harsh out there (we have no idea, really), who'd leave that didn't have to?!

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