Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Philosophy and Immortality

I have never read any philosophy so this is probably all old hat, sorry. Also, this could upset some of those of a religious persuasion, which is not my intention - don't read if you don't have an open mind.

Basically, this is my musings on the idea of immortality - living for ever. Something I am sure many have pondered. No, I am not dying (any more than anyone else), I am just getting older and philosophical.

There are, of course, some pretty half hearted concepts of immortality. Lets start with something simple.

The atoms in my body carry on after I die: They will end up in other things and people and live on forever in some way. I have to say that this is a pretty crap immortality, but it has the one redeeming feature that it is factual and true.

My DNA carries on in my children: I do have children, and this is slightly more appealing as an concept. It means something that was uniquely me carries on (so way cooler than just carbon atoms). Unfortunately each generation dilutes that by two, so very quickly you lose anything uniquely me. It is not a very long immortality really. However, again, factual and true, which is nice.

Deeds or monuments: This is interesting - the idea that some good deeds or some thing that I make could live on after I die. The Egyptian Pharaohs were good at this one. It is, of course, quite difficult and could range from just some family story, distorted from each generation to the next, right up to being Hitler. Yes, sadly, it is probably easier to be immortal by doing something very bad as something very good. It is a goal one could aim for (to do something memorable or long standing), which is nice, and it is factual, if a tad vague and unpredictable.

My words will carry on: This is an interesting idea - that we live in an information age. Before I was born information was very much attached to physical objects (books, etc). Now we live in the age of The Cloud and storage that grows faster than we can fill it. There is no reason this blog would be deleted after I die - not because it has anything profound, but because there is no reason to delete it. It will take an increasingly small amount of available storage to stay on line and searchable. Old blogs will become history projects. It is conceivable that in a thousand years someone could search for these words and find this very blog post. This is quite nice, and very plausible.

But enough of fact, lets consider fiction... and fantasy...

Reincarnation: The idea that you have a soul that somehow continues after death and goes in to a new person. This is all well and good, but the catch is that you do not recall you last life or even benefit from previous experience, even subconsciously. For all practical purposes this is as naff as the carbon atoms being re-used. Its really more of a story of future damnation - where "doing bad" now means a worst body for the next life, but "doing good" means a better one. It is totally crap as an idea of immortality. Of course, it falls over on the factual basis too.

Heaven: Heaven (or hell) or some eternal celestial plane when you die, and living on forever. An interesting, and even appealing, idea (with some caveats). You can see why it is popular. One big appeal is the continuity of consciousness that comes with this. A soul that re-incarnates with no memory is not "me". But moving on seems nice and fits with things that happen in life - one often moves on from one environment to another (job, home, etc). But I have to wonder, and always ask anyone that believes this, "what then?". You really start to run in to problems with the idea of living for ever. After all, even if there is every entertainment possible, even if you had the chance to live out anyone's life in history just for fun, even if you could play any game, when you have done all of those things a billion times, what then? Ultimately you have to consider enough is enough. You have to consider an end to your being. And if you accept there can be an end, then why do you not accept that it happens when you die rather than some arbitrary time later? Not really a workable immortality, and lacks any fact or plausibility, obviously. Shame.

Not dying: This is slightly more plausible - the idea that basically your body does not age and fall apart. But essentially you are still mortal - can be hit by a bus. Living sensibly you have no real prospect of dying and can really plan for the future. The reason it is plausible is that medical science is getting close to curing aging in various ways, or at least understanding it. You can be pretty sure it will not happen in my lifetime - bugger. There are some issues though: One being that you can still die, but another is that this does not work if everyone has it. You think the world is over populated now - wait till nobody dies any more - it won't work and will be horrid. You'll want to die soon enough.

Can't die: The basis of many a sci-fi, the idea that you cannot die (even hit by a bus). This is where your body survives or regenerates magically no matter what. This only works if you are one of a few people with this super power as otherwise we have the overcrowding issue. It also suffers the bored with living forever problem, but more so, as you would eventually be living in the heart of a dying sun, and expanding cooling universe - so getting bored -  only with none of the entertainment of heaven. Crap idea, sorry.

Mind backup: Another fun idea, and a tad less plausible but not quite beyond all possibility is the idea that somehow your mind could be copied. This could be down to micro cellular scans of your dead frozen brain to create a connectivity map. It could be that all that is you can be extracted by observation of you over your life by clever software. More fanciful is some star trek style scanner or transporter. All sorts of concepts of a way to copy your mind, and ultimately run you in a computer. This does solve some aspects of the over population as we could all live in Azeroth and take no space and eat no food. It is just about workable, but suffers the getting bored with living forever problems as above. One big advantage with being run in a computer is that you could sleep - suspend consciousness until something interesting happens. Ultimately all the players are permanently asleep - but technically immortal still. With that extra caveat of sleeping indefinitely, it could work as a concept.

Circular life: This is really one I dreamt up myself, trying to address the problems of the above. It involves a can't die scenario, and a time machine. You live on until life on Earth gets boring (due to a suitable meteor or some such), and then go back in time - say a few thousand years. You live all of that time again, remembering some things from the first time, and so having fun predicting the future. Then you do it again, and again, but your memory is not perfect, as memory is not, and so eventually the time loop is completely repeating with no changes. You live a life of someone that never dies and always vaguely remembers the future, concealing your longevity and blending in and having fun. You really do live forever with none of the problems. It does rely on a fading memory, but you are happy non the less. Bingo - the perfect answer. Oh! Crap! This is even more fantasy than the rest, maybe I have to stick to one of the concepts that is factual or at least plausible.

Please archive my blog after I die. In the words of today's DIlbert: "It's better if the dying and the ash scattering are separate events".


  1. All interesting. I want to take issue with your idea that the concept of heaven is a pleasant idea. Firstly let's not beat about the bush, heaven only really exists within theologies; in other words with no significant variance, believers in heaven are also believers in a god or gods. There are no atheists who believe in heaven, nor have there ever been in any siginificant number.

    So... If you describe heaven as a possibly pleasant idea, then you have to take the inevitable theology along with that. They are part and parcel.

    To borrow heavily (and probably badly paraphrase) from Christopher Hitchens on this subject :

    Imagine a belief in god as a great dictatorship. Think of it as a 'celestial North Korea'. A place where you constantly have to be praising the almighty. With one key difference. At least in North Korea you can leave it; you can die.. In all major theologies that have a heaven/afterlife, one has to spend ALL ETERNITY praising the creator. You can't even escape by dying. You are already dead.

    And secondly, Q: what is worse than a party you have to leave early? A: A party that goes on too long. A party that 'drags'.

    I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that ALL ETERNITY does start to feel 'too long' .... Now think of a party where your boss is looking on, so you have to temper your behaviour all the time? Still sound like fun? Now add in continual sycophancy towards said boss. Now add in the legions of pious, all doing the same. Still a party you want to be at? And IT GOES ON FOREVER.

    And that's just heaven. What about hell?

    1. Indeed - I was actually deliberately trying to leave out any deity discussion in this, but indeed it is hard to in that context.

    2. > So... If you describe heaven as a possibly pleasant idea, then you have to take the inevitable theology along with that. They are part and parcel.

      What if we are in fact immortal beings without want, and our consciousness is temporarily inserted into these human bodies? Perhaps humans are consciousnesses who got "bored" of their eternal luxury and decided to challenge themselves on Earth. We somehow force ourselves to forget our true nature, because otherwise there would be less challenge in living out a life here.

      This is often portrayed as the notion that we are living out some sort of imagined game. But what if the Earth is just as real as whatever we actually are? Maybe we found this interesting rock with simple creatures a long time ago and decided we could start occupying it (humans certainly like occupying things). So we took over the consciousness of primates over thousands of generations.

      And there is no reason to require a deity for any the above.

      (However, this is very much a luxury problem. There are humans born and dying in such horrific conditions, sometimes much too young to have experienced anything, that we might eliminate the possibility not only of any benevolent deity but of any control whatsoever. Attenborough once challenged the beauty of nature as proof of deity by describing an African parasite which burrows into the eyes of children, blinding them. Perhaps humans just want to think they have more control, or at least the potential for more control, than anyone or anything has.)

  2. One I left out is that the "running in a computer" could involve a restore and so re-running your life so you never get bored. Not sure I like that. Obviously, no way to tell that is not what is happening right now :-)

  3. I rather like the idea that we are just consciousness playing out a dream. Rupert Spira explains it well with practical step by step analysis, cutting out any spiritual bullshit as you will see here: http://youtu.be/nDMs5XTvlxE

  4. your last idea is very much like Lazarus Long in Time Enough For Love (Robert A Heinlein) a fab book very much worth a read

    basically the guy has a gene that makes him more or less immortal and so he has to live many lifetimes each time faking his death and moving on (imsmr) this way he spawns so many offspring !!

    gets bored moves on etc even has a go at time travel (again imsmr)

    always liked the idea :)

    1. replying to myself as well


      from reading the wiki it's much more interesting than I first remembered
      I must re-read this book!

  5. the other idea of living out as a facsimile in a computer....

    how can you be sure you're/we're not !

    after all it wouldn't be any good if you could tell the difference would it?

    there is a line of argument to say that if the technology was to be invented where we *plug in* and play life sim games like this in a computer and if they became as prevalent as say mobile phones mp3 players or other hand held consoles ie EVERYONE HAD ONE AND USED ONE

    then the statistical probability of say 7 Billion facsimiles to 1 real world is that we probably are in just such a game / sim ... but just can't tell the difference

    maybe when we die here ... we wake up in a bed some where and take the electrodes off our heads?

    1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain_in_a_vat

  6. The problem that the living in a computer, or indeed teleportation (given that as far as we can guess teleportation would be a copy/delete operation) is not immortality. I still experience death - or being murdered by the teleportation device - but a new copy appears that continues to live thinking it's me.. but It's not, in fact, me, even though it believes itself to be so.

    Scifi tends to gloss over that - the 'my friend died but we brought him back by putting his consciousness in a body/avatar that looks and acts identically' scenario - but I doubt I could react the way TV characters do.. I see a friend die, then robot friend is created..but *I* know it's a different person/thing - I wouldn't stop grieving for the death of the original person.

    1. Nobody experiences death though?

    2. Everyone experiences death. Nobody survives to tell anyone what it's like..

  7. Another theory I've seen knocking around is the multiple universe idea. The theory that everything that can happen does happen in a parallel universe somewhere. Under that model we're all already immortal - as long as at least one possible universe exists where we're still alive (out of an infinite number).

  8. Mind backup and personality computerization comes with a whole bunch of interesting features and complications (some explored in Charles Stross works and a bit in Peter F. Hamilton's too). Like having multiple copies of yourself running around at the same time, intentionally or accidentally (e.g. you activated your backup clone and restored your most recent memory backup, then it turns out the original didn't die after all). Also "spinning off" instances to merge them later on. So for example your instance B goes settling down somewhere, finds a wife, raises a child and 30 years later meets up and merges memories with instance A, who's been doing something entirely different during this time (optionally terminating instance B at this point). And once personalities are digitized, it's not far fetched to permit edits (bad divorce memories? Drag 'em to the trash can and secure erase!)

    And of course the always awkward "my cloud memory backup provider got hacked and 30'000 personality backups got leaked on the internet".

  9. "My words will carry on"
    This article: http://www.theinquirer.net/inquirer/news/1018123/were-all-immortal sums it up rather nicely. I still miss teh Hermit.

  10. Of course, running a simulation of yourself in a computer means trusting the meat-space entities administering that computer...

    Iain M Banks' Surface Detail has a universe in which the technology to do this is perfectly possible, and quite a few societies have decided that running simulated Hells for their dear departed is a good idea.

    If we had that tech, I think technical regulatory issues would suddenly become a much bigger public agenda item!