Immortality is one thing that the oldest of our ancestors have endeavored to achieve. Pick up any legend, myth, or narrative from the past, it’s hard not to find instances of humans endlessly obsessing over invincibility and immortality.
Almost all the folklore in the world glorifies the notion of escaping death and the idea of Gods and Goddesses in virtually every faith has one characteristic in common: immortality.
Every living organism has an end to its life cycle, then why do they not strive for becoming immortal? Sure, every animal has survival instincts, but those only satiate the immediate need for protection from predators.
We don’t see animals working out, eating right, and meditating to prevent health complications in the long run; maybe because they are not aware of death as we are, and maybe that’s why we do things differently in our lives.
Does being aware of our transience make us so afraid of death that we would cross to any lengths to cheat it? Or is it our inclination towards the world, our family, friends, and dear ones that provoke us to look for ways to extend our lifespans?
Before commenting upon anything at all, we must first understand how different people interpret death and immortality differently.
What are Death and Immortality?
Death might seem like a self-explanatory term but you’d be surprised with how distinctly people perceive death; some people may take death at its corporal value, as being a complete shutdown of the material body, organs, and the bodily functions performed by them, ultimately accepting that this is the end of a living organism and that death is a part of the cycle of life and nothing transcends it.
While others believe death is more fleeting than life; this is where spiritual beliefs such as the afterlife, reincarnation, hell, and heaven take the wheel.
A lot of people might look for ways to make contact with those they’ve lost because they believe that their soul is still alive somewhere. For such spiritual individuals, death is but the beginning of a new life and they might perceive it more positively than others.
For some, it is consciousness that makes us who we are rather than bodily traits and functions and therefore they believe the preservation of consciousness in any way is the key to eternity.
Although in recent times the spiritual attainment of immortality has been at odds with people’s belief, science has been a major contributing factor in this steep decline in spirituality.
Since no one has or can ever confirm the notion of a life beyond death for the soul, they cannot corroborate the existence of an eternal soul either and people would rather put their faith in a field whose development is explicitly visible to them than something that is fundamentally abstract. Science promises to achieve the goal of immortality while existing on earth, but in the face of it, the promise of an imperishable soul seems to fade.
The Tales of Elixir
There are a lot of substances associated with the idea of an absolute cure for all illnesses and therefore the limitless prolongation of life.
During ancient times people sincerely believed that certain potions and juices could cure all ills and diseases. The most well-known and pertinent of these was- ‘The Elixir of Life
Ancient Chinese mythology:
One of the earliest tales about the Elixir of life is included in Chinese mythology. Emperor Qin Shi Huang was the first emperor of China and he ruled from 221 to 210 BCE, he was called a visionary because he laid the foundation of a unified China by taming all the warring states.
One of his other goals included increasing longevity by the possession of an elixir, therefore, he sent search parties and expeditions to various parts of the world but was unsuccessful in his attempts and died at the ripe age of 49.
Alchemy during the middle ages:
Alchemy is a familiar word to most of us, it was believed to be the study or science of turning any base metal into gold. Alchemists were in constant pursuit of an elixir in the form of the philosopher’s stone to attain immortality.
Fiction and movies in modern times:
Many fictional and fantastical works such as the Harry Potter series explore the subject of elixir and the philosopher’s stone and in turn, enrapture their audience with such fascinating content.
The Pursuit of Immortality Through the Centuries
Here are some of the most notable instances of the pursuit of immortality:
1. Mythology and Religion:
Immorality has been a core theme in countless mythologies and religious narratives. For example: in Hinduism, the practice of ‘tapasya’ or penance was used by many influential figures even in the demon or ‘Rakshasa’ clan such as ‘Ravana‘ and ‘Bhasmasur’ to please Gods and Goddesses and seek immortality as a blessing; in Greek mythology, the Gods were believed to be immortal and the quest for the fountain of youth was quite a popular motif; in Norse mythology, the Gods weren’t believed to be inherently immortal, they could be victims of ravages of old age just like anybody else.
Therefore, they had apples that rejuvenated their youth and the keeper of these apples was Idunn, also known as the Goddess of immortality and Wife of Bragi, the God of poetry.
2. Philosophical and Literary Works:
Many popular philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Kant have written intensively on immortality. Immorality has been a topic of conflict in debate in both Philosophy and literature. Exploring the significance of a world without death and the postulates behind that possibility.
3. Cultural Beliefs and Practices:
In some cultures like Buddhism, certain practices, such as meditation are believed to lead to spiritual immortality, known as liberation or ‘Moksa’.
4. Scientific Pursuits:
Scientific technology and methodology have been advancing with remarkable speed. Much life extension research has been in the works along with cryonics, artificial intelligence, uploading consciousness into computers, and so on.
5. Medical Advancements:
It is a proven fact that the growth of medical technology over the years has led to increased life expectancy. We have found cures for a lot of previously fatal diseases and life-prolonging treatments for those with terminal illnesses (something which was impossible to dream about in the early days).
Few researchers even contend that the vision of extending the human lifespan infinitely is within reach through advancements such as stem cell therapy to study, reverse engineer and possibly cure terminal illnesses such as Cancer and Alzheimer’s.
But these medical and scientific Advancements come with a set of moral conundrums and ethical contentions of their own.
Ethics Surrounding Life-extending Technology
The furtherance and evolution of any scientific field lead to the violation of multiple codes of ethics and therefore, before proceeding on our quest to immortality, we must take into consideration these aspects:
Ethics and the question of accessibility are inseparable so long as class segregation and discrimination persist in the world. As is true for a lot of medical technologies and amenities such as ART technologies like- In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) and Surrogacy; life-prolonging treatments in case of terminal illnesses like chemotherapy, and so on, there will be countless disparities in the accessibility for a high-end advancement that would allow us to immortalize ourselves.
Access to these resources would then solely be a matter of privilege and those who can afford them would end up hoarding these resources, further deteriorating the problem of accessibility.
2. Health Risks:
Some of these technologies, such as gene editing and stem cell therapy, carry potential health risks, such as unintended genetic mutations, that could have serious consequences for individuals and future generations.
3. Philosophical Concerns:
The idea of immortality raises fundamental questions about the meaning of life, the role of death, and what it means to be human. Some argue that death is an inherent part of the human experience and that extending lifespan or achieving immortality goes against the natural order of things.
4. Privacy Concerns:
Some of these technologies, such as artificial intelligence, raise concerns about privacy and the collection and use of personal data. There is a risk that personal information could be used for nefarious purposes or that the digital form of a person’s consciousness could be hacked or manipulated.
What if We do Find a Way to Achieve Immortality?
When I talk about Immortality I do not equate it to invincibility or the kind of immortality wherein we could jump off the 7th-floor balcony and come out of it alive and unscathed, what I do mean is I have already discussed how science promises to actualize the goal of immortality through the evolution of medical technology, and life extension research, stem cell therapy and its research and the possibility of uploading consciousness into artificial intelligence devices are cases in point.
If we were to find the key to immortality, how would the world change?
Let’s look at both the positive and negative impacts:
- Adventure: We would get to live our lives on the edge without being afraid of anything. We could travel around the world, try all the adventure sports in the world, and set and break world records one at a time.
- Abundant quality time: We would get to spend more time with our family members, friends, and other dear ones. A very big consideration in the pursuit of immortality is the desire to be able to be around our loved ones for long periods amidst being consumed by otherworldly things.
- Larger workforce: Since the population will increase insanely, there will be a greater supply of workers.
- Gdp growth: More working people would lead to substantial GDP growth.
- Master of all trades: It’s practically impossible to pursue more than one career at a time or even enhance your skills with infinite time in your pockets, you could master a lot of skills and careers throughout your life.
- Fewer healthcare expenses: With a cure for old age, there will be lesser expenditure on healthcare and medical amenities. People will become innately immune to most diseases, even the new ones that mutate out of existing illnesses.
- Monogamy might run out of fashion: The idea of spending a lifetime with someone would become undesirable to most considering how it would be for a literal eternity, therefore people would lose values of commitment and loyalty. While being polyamorous is not exactly a negative aspect, the actual issue is that most romantic relationships would get deprived of meaning.
- Longer careers would be a blessing and a curse: No pension plan in the world is going to be able to provide security to individuals indefinitely and therefore people would have to work a lot more. With working indefinitely, clinical burnout will soar high, and we would need ample resources for our mental and emotional well-being, even if we will not have to spend much on our physical well-being. Additionally, if the older generation stays in the same lines of work, it would become virtually impossible to recruit a younger workforce; which brings me to another important point…
- Socially regressive and possibly oppressive: Imagine if people like Hitler got to live for eternity, things would be a lot worse for so many people. We’ve not yet attained absolute harmony, therefore we might end up in a more than imperfect, repressive, and stagnant social and political setting.
- Chronic unhappiness: Life would lose meaning and people would eventually stop living to make everyday count. It would become monotonous to the extent that people would want to take their own lives rather than live to see another day. Suicide rates would spike and depression would be the new trend.
- Overpopulation: The earth already has an overpopulation problem, with death rates declining, there would be no room for newer generations and we ultimately will have to conquer and colonize other planets and even galaxies to provide housing to people. This would again bring us to the question of accessibility since not everyone would be able to afford living expenses outside the earth, they would have to suffer on Earth itself while privileged groups will hoard all the available resources for themselves.
- The exploitation of natural resources and Animals: We’re already struggling to find enough natural resources to gratify everyone’s needs, in a world where humans have no expiry date, but things still do, people on the lower rungs of the hierarchy would suffer, and the fact that they may starve for months and still stay alive would bring them chronic pain and agony.
In the end, when humans would have evolved to be inherently immortal, mortality would become a fictitious legend of the past, and basically obsolete; researchers might just begin to find a way to cure immorality and become mortal again. Immortality would lose its novel charm soon enough and people will grow resentful of it to a point of insanity.
Apparently, there is a movement in Silicon Valley by Billionaires and Biotech companies that are developing drugs to eliminate the process of aging and extend healthy lifestyles indefinitely.
In their opinion, playing around with genetics and decreasing caloric intake has already been proven to extend the lifetimes of animals such as flies, worms, and mice, hence there should be no reason that it won’t work for humans. This is easier said than done since each of the aforementioned animals belongs to a different species and genus.
The pursuit of immortality and the extension of the human lifespan has been a part of human history and culture for thousands of years. And while true immortality may remain an elusive goal, there have been many technological and medical advancements that have the potential to greatly extend the human lifespan and improve the quality of life. Some of the most promising advancements include life extension research, cryonics, artificial intelligence, gene editing, and stem cell therapy.
However, the development and use of these technologies also raise important ethical contentions, such as accessibility, health risks, social implications, philosophical concerns, and privacy issues. There is a need for a careful and responsible approach to the development and use of these technologies, balancing the potential benefits with the potential risks and impacts on society.
Moreover, the idea of immortality raises fundamental questions about the meaning of life, the role of death, and what it means to be human. The philosophical and ethical implications of these technologies and advancements must be carefully considered and discussed to ensure that they are developed and used in a way that is in the best interests of humanity.
It is important to recognize that while these advancements have the potential to greatly impact human lifespan and well-being, they are still in the early stages of development, and much more research and development are needed before their full potential can be realized. Additionally, while these advancements may help extend lifespan, they are unlikely to achieve true immortality, as death is an inherent part of the human condition.
In conclusion, the pursuit of immortality and the extension of the human lifespan will likely continue to be a major area of research and development in the coming years. The ethical and philosophical implications of these advancements must be carefully considered to ensure that they are developed and used in a way that is in the best interests of humanity.
Ultimately, the goal should not be to achieve immortality but to improve the quality of life and ensure that all people have access to the benefits of these advancements.