Never Say Die

There are so many ways to be immortal. Which one works for you?

Never Say Die

There are so many ways to be immortal. Which one works for you?

A number of Silicon Valley tycoons believe that they can achieve immortality by downloading their minds onto a computer before their body dies. Leaving aside the question as to whether this is likely to be scientifically and technically  feasible, just what kind of immortality could this achieve?

A mind without a body would be sitting on a server in the Cloud. What sort of afterlife would this be? Not being able to see, hear, smell, taste or touch, feel bodily emotions, move about, or manipulate the world around you? All you would have would be your memories and cognitive abilities.

Maybe there is an expectation that your preserved mind could be uploaded into the brain of a newborn baby? But what parents in the future are going to donate their newborn to such an experiment? Why would they want to bring you back to life, with all your old-fashioned baggage, when they can start afresh with their own baby?

Alternatively, maybe a mechanical robot, with all the sense organs and bodily emotions, could be the recipient of your preserved mind. But why would future AI technicians want to use your mind in their robot? Why not upload their own minds, or even create a fresh artificial mind? Maybe if you had won the Nobel Prize you might stand a chance of having your preserved mind considered. But if you are just an ordinary Joe, forget it.

Other possible technical pathways to immortality come to mind. For example, some rich celebrities are having their bodies deep-frozen at the moment of death, hopefully before any cellular degradation can occur. Then, when medical science progresses in the future, a doctor could thaw them out and resurrect them, with all their memories and faculties intact, using miracle drugs or technologies. Not sure how feasible this would be. Meat that has been pre-frozen is not the same as fresh meat. Damage to cellular walls may be extensive.

Another idea is to preserve your DNA so that you may be cloned in the future like the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park”. This presents less challenges than the above in terms of lengthy storage, but your memories would be lost. So, it wouldn’t be you who was brought back to life, but your identical twin as a baby.

Incidentally, cloning does happen in real life — to tiny single-cell creatures that reproduce asexually. That means, when the time comes to spread their genes, they simply divide into two daughter cells, each with identical DNA to the parent. Bacteria and Amoeba have this kind of immortality, subject to the occasional mutation and the continued survival of a host; and also subject to the absence of any pathogen such as an antibiotic which could wipe out the whole colony.

The multi-celled Hydra, a tiny jellyfish, is likewise capable of reproducing the whole creature from any part which has been cut off — another form of immortality. By contrast, biological mortality is the price we humans pay for the enjoyment of sexual reproduction.

Given that human interventions to achieve immortality are problematic, what have religions to offer those of you who crave it? You have a wide variety of menus from which to choose. In fact, religion offers a smorgasbord of options: from an afterlife in heaven within Christianity and Islam, to having your consciousness recycled into future generations under Buddhism, and to being reincarnated as a different person within Hinduism, to name just a few.

Leaving aside the question as to whether or not they reflect reality, let us delve a little deeper into these religious concepts to see how they compare with the technical fixes proposed above. The most appealing concept of immortality is offered by Christianity and Islam, in that the ego-self continues into the afterlife. Just how this might be pulled off is a bit obscure.

One version is that your soul or mind disengages from your body on its death, and enters the spirit world in heaven, paradise, purgatory, or hell; whatever the case may be. Even if you made it to either of the first two destinations, what kind of an afterlife would it be as a disembodied soul or mind? After all, you rely on the body to give you a sense of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, as well as emotions and the ability to move about and manipulate the environment around you. What’s more, you may have lost your memories, which you left behind and stored in your brain, now dead on Earth. To not have memories would be to not know what it feels like to be you.

Realizing that a disembodied soul does not have a lot to offer, Christianity has come up with the concept of you being reborn in Christ, body and soul. This is a considerable improvement - as it enables you to have a brain - which seems to be a necessary hardware platform to support a mind. However, it is problematic as to whether your memories would survive the transition to the new brain. I suppose in the supernatural world anything is possible, but better not count on it. After all, you may already have trouble enough remembering what it was like to be you at age three, despite the fact that the two of you have lived in the same body and in the same world.

If you are going to be reborn with the same body, the question arises as to just where in the material world this physical being would reside. I suppose the universe has enough stars to host at least one other planet like ours to be your new home.

However, for you to be born again in the same form, this distant exoplanet is going to have to be populated with other humans, including your parents and all your ancestors, so that you end up inheriting your original DNA. In fact, for this to happen naturally, the whole chain of evolution from the first single-cell bacteria to human beings needs to have unfolded on this exoplanet before you come along. Of course, other universes might also be out there providing even more options, but I’m sure you get the idea.

Buddhism, which holds that the material world is not important, has a concept of immortality which may be easier to pull off, but has a lot less appeal. In effect, you inherit your consciousness from a dead person when you are born; and when you die, that consciousness is passed on to a newborn baby. So, it is not really yours to keep, but only to be its temporary custodian. Thus there is no concept of a self or ego or soul continuing into the afterlife. On death, you are subsumed into the Universal Consciousness.

In Hinduism, you can look forward to being reincarnated after death, but not as the same person. Being human, you have already been reincarnated from animals in your former lives, and you look forward to future reincarnations into higher and higher beings until you become one with the ultimate reality or Brahman (God). That is, provided your previous lives have been lived with merit. In this way your soul survives your death, but not your ego, self, or memories.

Many New Age religions have borrowed ideas from Buddhism and Hinduism, stressing that immortality can only be achieved by moving outside the boundaries of the ego or self and becoming one with the universe.

Furthermore, many scientists - such as Einstein, and philosophers - such as Spinoza, have espoused a non-supernatural concept of God as being equivalent to nature or the universe. This God is within us all. So, what kind of immortality does this concept provide?

Four possibilities come to mind. The first is that when you die, the God who has resided within you would continue to dwell everywhere — including in the atoms which once composed your body, wherever they may go and in whatever form they may take. Alternatively, the life you led would be on the cosmic record for all eternity. The third possibility is that your DNA would live on (with modifications) in your bloodline. And lastly, perhaps those persons whom you influenced would appreciate and carry forward your ideas and creations.

So there it is. Take your pick from among all the options above for achieving immortality, whichever one gives you peace of mind.