Waiting for Immortality

Will it be God or science which finally allows us to live forever? Perhaps time, and patience, will tell.

Waiting for Immortality

Will it be God or science that finally allows us to live forever? Perhaps time, and patience, will tell.

Promises of immortality have been largely in the domain of one religion or another. Usually, these promises  involved supernatural claims to an afterlife in the so-called spirit world, or to resurrection or reincarnation. But today is a technological age and, rather than rely on gods or spirits, people prefer to wrest control and take matters into their own hands. This suggests the question: what are the chances, if any, of achieving immortality without recourse to the supernatural?

Four options have been suggested in the technological age. These are: reversing the aging process; cloning from live or preserved DNA; uploading your mind onto a computer; or reincarnation from the gene pool.

The first three options are currently beyond our capabilities. The fourth requires no human intervention but leaves it up to nature.

Those hoping for a reversal of the ageing process are banking on a better future than we have today, at least as far as medicine is concerned. They plan to cryogenically freeze their bodies just before death, so their grandchildren can revive them later, if and when the technology becomes available to make them healthy again and further extend their lifespan. That is, provided their brains do not turn to mush when thawed out after prolonged freezing.

Another option is to preserve your DNA, instead of your entire body. DNA is much sturdier stuff, and it has stood the test of time even in the case of some prehistoric creatures. Once ready, the technology could reconstruct you as you were. However, it would suffer from the disadvantage that you would have no connection to your original life. While you would have the same body and brain and physical makeup, you would not carry over your memories. Your life experience would be different. That means you’d be a different person, just like identical twins are different people, though they start out with identical DNA.

This option faces a problem: your body is saved, but your personality is not. That’s where uploading your mind onto a computer could help.

But even if it becomes possible in future, a mind upload is hardly enough to give you a satisfactory afterlife. You would also need sense organs, emotions, mobility, social contacts and friends to have a meaningful afterlife. Don’t count on your surviving relatives to remember to provide and maintain those things after your biological body has died: you’d be lucky if they even remembered your birthday.

As in the science fiction book Immortality, Inc., maybe it will be possible to copy your uploaded mind into a new body made from your preserved DNA, or even from someone else’s DNA delivering a better body than your old one. Who knows: perhaps your uploaded mind might even be copied into that of an advanced robot equipped with sense organs and emotions? Such fates are better than lying forgotten in a computer, but would you still be the same person you once were?

If all else fails, what about the fourth route to immortality: reincarnation through the gene pool? Essentially, we wait until the same DNA sequence that made us up is born again through chance.

Identical twins aside, every human being is unique. The chances for your precise DNA sequence to come up again from the human gene pool on this earth are a good deal less than winning the lottery ten times in a row. This is due to the vast number of combinations and permutations of the genetic code within the DNA molecule, not to mention your descendants diluting your genes by breeding with all and sundry.

If that weren’t enough, think of all the mutations occurring in the gene pool after your death, along with the onward march of evolution of the human species. Naturally, you have only one shot at life on this earth.

However, the prospects for your DNA to have a rerun may improve considerably if you look further afield beyond our little planet to the vastness of the cosmos.

Outcomes with a tiny but finite probability become virtually certain if presented with a near-infinite number of opportunities over near-infinite time. That’s exactly what the cosmos might provide, with its probable zillions of exoplanets orbiting zillions of stars, many of those planets able to support life as we know it.

To pursue this line of argument, let us ponder the immensity of the universe.

Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, contains hundreds of billions of stars, many probably with their own planets. The known universe comprises hundreds of billions of such galaxies, stretching out for billions of light years.

Our knowledge of the universe is vast, though by no means complete. The mainstream scientific opinion is that it began as a Big Bang; and it is still expanding with its constituents moving further apart; it is likely to continue to do so until its energy is all burnt up and it suffers a heat death after many trillions of years. While this scenario may well be true, as far as it goes, it is a rather pessimistic view of the long term future (though not likely to trouble even your great grandchildren).

A variation on this theme, popular 40 years ago, but not so much now, is that the universe will eventually stop expanding and, under the influence of gravity, begin to contract instead — becoming denser and smaller and eventually imploding in a “Big Crunch”. While granting a stay of execution, this scenario is hardly less pessimistic.

However, some bright sparks have theorized that this may not be the end of the matter. The internal pressures within the Big Crunch may, like a coiled spring, release another Big Bang, and everything would start all over again, and so on, ad infinitum.

In recent years, the idea of a multiverse has become popular in scientific circles. This rests on the argument that the event triggering the Big Bang which created our universe, was not unique, that other universes exist in parallel and in series with ours, each in its own bubble. While there is not a shred of evidence for this, it does have a certain theoretical scientific logic. It seems the human imagination, at least, is boundless.

These universes, if they exist, may or may not work the same way as ours, and may or may not produce conditions amenable to life; but with enough of them, chances are that many will.

Finally, there is the now discredited idea from a hundred years ago that the universe is in a steady state, eternal, and continues to manufacture new matter and new stars as the old die out. This idea has had something of a revival recently among a few scientists in the light of the James Webb Space Telescope images which show galaxies like ours existing 13 billion years ago, almost back to the Big Bang. This was a surprise, as scientists expected to see only very young and immature galaxies at this time in the universe’s life.

While the above is a very confusing picture for us all, one consistent idea seems to emerge: whatever the mechanism, our universe and possibly others may exist for infinite time, or nearly so.

This idea creates opportunities for immortality.

On the assumption that life, sentience and intelligence will emerge whenever and wherever material conditions are right for them, then we might expect them to be ubiquitous. We might expect to find them on exoplanets around at least some of the hundreds of billions of stars in our Milky Way galaxy, and around stars in the hundreds of billions of galaxies in our universe or within other universes, for all time.

This offers the prospect for a rerun of your life at another time in another place. In an infinite universe (or universes) your specific DNA sequence is bound to come up again and again.

Sounds spooky, right? But this is what the mathematics of infinity tells us.

Mind you, you would not remember your previous life on Earth, and you may not have the same experiences — but then, you aren’t expecting miracles. You may think that an eternity is a long time to wait for your DNA sequence to come up again, but while you are dead, the time would pass “in the blink of an eye”.

As mentioned above, this prospect is based on the assumption that life, sentience and intelligence will emerge naturally whenever and wherever the structure of matter is right for it. For biological systems, this requires a great deal of complexity at the least. The same can be said for structures based on silicon circuits, if indeed they are ever capable of being alive and sentient.

Of course, hard evidence for such eventualities beyond Earth is absent. We have not (yet) observed any signs of life on other planets or exoplanets, although we have only been able to study a tiny fraction of the universe due to the tyranny of distance. Furthermore, we do not even know yet how life began on this planet. Not surprisingly, then, we have not been able to create life, let alone sentience, artificially from non-living chemical building blocks. We can create artificial intelligence from silicon circuits, but not yet life and sentience, although Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are forever hopeful of achieving this.

On the other hand, what if life required something extra in order to come into being from inanimate matter — something of which we are not yet aware? For example, this could have been some kind of spark to light life’s fire.

While hard evidence for this is lacking, the same could be said for some of the more speculative claims made earlier in this article. Just because we cannot detect an unlikely phenomenon with our senses or our present-day instruments does not necessarily mean it does not exist. A few hundred years ago cosmic rays, for example, which are invisible, could not be detected with instruments at the time, and thus their existence was unknown.

If something extra and rare was indeed required for life to first take root on this planet, apart from the right physical conditions, as we think we know them, then there may be a lot less life in the universe than we might expect. Certainly, there is a strong suggestion from the biological record that all life on earth originated from a single, and therefore rare, source. This idea is lent support by the Fermi Paradox. Physicist Enrico Fermi asked the question: “where are all the aliens?

If the universe is full of intelligent life, some more advanced than us, then why have they not tried to reach out and communicate with like minds elsewhere in the universe? The universe is silent when it comes to signals that could have been sent by intelligent beings, except for those sent by us. Perhaps the aliens are too far away for the signals to get through. Perhaps we have not looked thoroughly enough or are looking for the wrong kind of signal. Or, perhaps there is no one else out there, after all.

If this is so, then it reduces the prospects for natural immortality accordingly.

While all the founders of the great religions lived long before humans had any knowledge about DNA and the immense size and nature of the universe, their promises of immortality, in different ways, were almost as if they had some inkling of that hidden knowledge.

For example, Hinduism and Buddhism hold out the prospect of reincarnation, in which on death your soul enters another body as it comes into the world and adopts its identity, which may not even be that of a human. In current scientific language, we would say it adopts the DNA of the new host.

The cycle of birth, death and rebirth would recur again and again with successive improvements in the quality of the host, provided your soul has led a good life throughout. These cycles would ultimately end when your soul achieved a state of Brahman or Enlightenment in the non-material world.

This scheme does not depend on the extremely low probability that your DNA could naturally get a rerun on this Earth from the human gene pool. It does, however, make the supernatural claim that an invisible soul jumps from your body as it is dying to a new human or animal on the point of being born (or conceived). Although, unlike Christianity and Islam, the Eastern religions do not imply that the soul carries the identity and the memories of the previous life into the next.

Christianity and Islam, in the main, also avoid the unlikely idea that your DNA can have a rerun on this Earth. Instead, they posit that after your body dies, your life will continue “up in Heaven”.

Though the prophets lived at a time when there was no concept of life on other planets, one could argue that this possibility might fulfill the prophecy of everlasting life through successive rebirths in extraterrestrial worlds, ad infinitum. It would do so, however, without the usual caveats imposed by the religions. These include the pre-conditions of worship, charity and moral purity. But the extraterrestrial rebirth would fail to transfer the memories of your previous life on Earth to your new life on another planet, as there is no natural way for this to happen.

Thus, it would not fully deliver on the promise of an afterlife held out by Christianity and Islam.

In conclusion, the religions still offer you superior forms of immortality than those potentially offered by nature and science, provided you are prepared to make the necessary leap of faith required to accept them. Where human imagination is at play, the religions have surpassed anything science could come up with when it comes to immortality. But if you are looking for a fallback option, nature and science may provide it.