Is Immortality Feasible?

Is Immortality Feasible?: A Partial Review of David Deutsch’s
The Beginning of Infinity

David Deutsch’s new book The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World (Viking) is a fascinating blend of philosophy, science, and fantasy. Much of it is insightful and even true, but much also is questionable, and one of the pleasures of reading it is the mental exercise of distinguishing what to accept from what to doubt. Deutsch knows as much about physics and math as Stephen Hawking and, for the reader uninitiated in these disciplines, his book can be rough going at times; I for one take him at his word and go on to the next chapter when the math and physics get beyond my skill sets. He knows less about philosophy and biology, including neuroscience, but seems unaware of his limitations in these fields, which can make his ideas either fun and surprising or naïve.

There is too much of interest in the book to be adequately or fairly covered in a review or short essay, so I wish to limit myself to just one idea out of the many, with the recommendation that the book is worth its price and the time spent reading and pondering it.

Deutsch is exceptionally optimistic about our future; he believes that the rationalism of the Enlightenment will continue to solve human problems even as those problems multiply as a result of earlier solutions. In fact, he greets new problems as opportunities to generate new knowledge and better explanations. As far as he is concerned, the laws of physics guarantee that all problems are solvable and knowledge can grow infinitely (which is the kind of infinity referred to in the title of his book). He considers death to be a problem, and that as a problem it has a solution. Therefore he is certain that science will, rather soon, confer physical immortality on human beings, or barring that, digital immortality. Thus, despite his antireligious stance, he reiterates the long-standing religious ideas about immortality—among Christians, for example, there is both the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body in the last days (the latter accounting for the traditional objection to cremation). Certain Biblical figures were even said to have been wafted physically to heaven without having to pass through death. Deutsch’s dream is essentially religious in nature, though he would be shocked to hear that.

Deutsch calls death an “evil” (p. 213), as if it were somehow a moral failure rather than simply an inevitable fact of life, biologically speaking in the same class as birth, digestion, and reproduction, something that living things simply do as part of the process of living. Indeed, without death, there could be no evolution; natural selection would have nothing to select if there were no death. Ironically, William Paley, whom Deutsch calls the “finest exponent of the argument from design” (p. 84), knew that better than Deutsch does. In Natural Theology, Paley writes of “the system of destruction amongst animals” in a way that prefigures Darwin’s natural selection, though of course within a theological rather than materialist-evolutionary paradigm. From an evolutionary view, individual death is a good thing because it makes the development of new adaptations and species possible. “Creative destruction,” as Joseph Schumpeter termed it in a different context. The “evil” that Deutsch sees in death must be therefore an expression of his own personal fear of death rather than a rational judgment on the moral or other status of death per se.

Deutsch is confident that science will solve the problems of “illness and old age” through such things as gene manipulation and therapies for diseases, but in recognition that homicide and accidents will still cause deaths, he posits that we will create backups of our “states of brains, which could be uploaded into new, blank brains in identical bodies if a person should die . . . So there can only be one outcome: effective immortality for the whole human population, with the present generation being one of the last that will have short lives” (p. 455). Attention must be paid to the ambiguities of his language. What does he mean by “brain states”? What constitutes a “short life,” particularly if it has been fully lived? What qualifies as “illness”? Is old age an illness? What is “effective” immortality? Does it differ from actual immortality, and if so, who would want it? And is an “identical body” (presumably a lab-grown clone) really identical?

Besides his resort to ambiguity, there are numerous problems with Deutsch’s prophecy, not excluding that he is indulging in prophecy, which he explicitly abjures on the same page. For one thing, whatever he may mean by “brain states,” he assumes that they are equivalent to the person. But given that the brain is an extremely complex organ made up of many parts or suborgans (and perhaps we should think of the brain as in fact several organs working together), only some of which process conscious rational thought, while others process sensations, emotions, memories, and various unconscious bodily processes, and that much of what the person is and experiences is mediated by hormones, quite independently of rational thought, deciding what to “backup” would be potentially an intractable problem. Not to mention how one digitizes hormones and emotions, or what function they would serve in a digitally backed up version of oneself. Further, he assumes that the brain is a computer, thus falling into the trap of reifying a metaphor. Metaphors that compare living things or their parts, processes, or behaviors, to human artifacts are especially misleading.

Mortality is, of course, not just a matter of aging or defective genes. It is a universal condition of life (in the sense of “on the condition of”), and to eliminate death would necessarily entail a complete restructuring of the world. As Paley wisely wrote, “Death itself, as a mode of removal and of succession, is so connected to the whole order of our animal world, that almost everything in that world must be changed, to be able to do without it.”

All diseases would have to be eliminated—not just those associated with aging or programmed by one’s genes, but also all those caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites, three large classes of living things over which human beings have either no or only provisional and temporary control. Animal diseases would have to be eliminated, in order to guarantee that none could mutate and jump to human beings, as has happened so many times already in the course of human history (e.g., smallpox, HIV, swine flu, etc.). Even if we successfully eliminated all genetic and contagious diseases, we would still have (as Deutsch hints) physical causes of death: suicide, homicide, fatal accidents, famine, thirst, and war (Deutsch does not mention that human immortality would require a concomitant change in human nature). There is no foreseeable technology that could reconstitute and revive a human being who had been thoroughly burned, for example.

The elimination of death would inevitably lead to a reshaping of our social world as well, for all great changes ripple out far beyond their initial and intended effects. There would be a near cessation of reproduction, for why add to the population if there is little or no subtraction, and why would immortals need or want children? (In this regard, it is instructive that as natural average lifespans have increased, reproductive rates have decreased.) At best, children would be rare, and who knows how well they would be taken care of or emotionally nourished if there were “effectively” no existential threat to their well being? There would also be no motive to get things done, as one could theoretically at least procrastinate forever, and there would be no need for research, for solving the problem of mortality would be psychologically equivalent to solving all human problems, and therefore production would end.

And what about the rest of the world, those non-human living things which vastly outnumber us and upon which we are dependent for our own lives? What would be the psychological impact on people of being immortal in a world in which all other creatures were still mortal? Would we become so callous towards inferior mortals that we would slaughter them wholesale just to pass the time? Or would we have to confer immortality on other animals, and if so, which animals would we choose to so bless? Everything from horses to beetles? Or would we limit the blessing only to favored domestic animals, such as cats and dogs (ferrets and guinea pigs, anyone?)? How would immortal human beings (those not yet digitized, anyway) feel about killing and eating a chicken or a cow? Would we at some point take pity on plants and confer immortality on them as well? If so, why would a rosebush bother to bloom (its flower being, in biological fact, its reproductive organs)? These admittedly rhetorical questions may strike one as ridiculous, but they underscore the fact that a world without death would end up being a world without life. Death would have the last laugh.

As noted earlier, backing up a person’s brain states would not confer immortality on the person. Whatever such a digital file might be, it would not be a person or a human being. A human being is a body and therefore more than merely his “thoughts” or whatever a “brain state” might be. Because of a linguistic trick, the conceptual problem engendered or at least reinforced by the possessive case, we seldom acknowledge that. By saying “my body” or “my brain” we reinforce the notion of dualism, that the person is separate from the body, that the body or the brain is something that we own rather than something that we are. This raises the problem of who the “my” is. Traditionally, it was the soul, while for Deutsch it appears to be some vague “brain state” analogous to a computer’s software and database. Nevertheless, Deutsch does not by this means escape the trap of dualism, and therefore he can really be said (again) to have a religious viewpoint, not a scientific one.

However, the mind is organic not digital, in that the brain evolved in a dialectic with the world, including other living things, and intelligence is the quality of our interaction with the rest of the world and also, very importantly, of the world’s interaction with us. Any paleoanthropologist can tell you that the brain, and thus human intelligence or mind, evolved, almost literally, hand in hand with the rest of the human body. As the dust jacket to David Abram’s book The Spell of the Senses so aptly puts it, “our most cherished human attributes—from the gift of language, to the awareness of past and present, to the rational intellect itself—all emerge in interaction with the animate natural world and remain wholly dependent upon that living world for their coherence.” Maybe this is why individuals who are deprived of bodily interaction with the world, for example through solitary confinement, lose their minds. A disembodied mind is no mind at all. It is merely a database, a memory bank with no function other than nightmare and hallucination.

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  • By Homo Hubris « Ugotitwrong's Blog on January 26, 2013 at 7:42 PM

    […] that our great progress from bands of hunters on the savannah to high-tech civilizations in which even mortality may at last be conquered will continue unabated by the occasional retrograde uprising of a few tribesmen in backward and […]

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