Imagine that there was a drug you could take that allowed you to live with some form of immortality.
Diseases such as the flu and cancer would no longer be a concern. Organ failure would be a remote possibility. The only thing that could take your life would be an unfortunate accident.
To take this drug would mean that you’re guaranteed to be healthy for the foreseeable future and beyond. Sounds fantastic right? Who wouldn’t want to take such a drug!?
On the face of it, this does sound great. One of the many worries most of us have is that we will die. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that from the moment we are born, we are on a one-way track to the end of our lives.
For some this comes before their time, others live long and fruitful lives well into old age. Still, the spectre of death hangs over us regardless. To remove it would be a joyous occasion, a cause for celebration surely?
Well, as the old saying goes, you should be careful what you wish for! While it may seem like living forever is appealing, what would the reality look like? Can we contemplate how long forever is? How would society be structured if some of us were here in perpetuity?
Instead of solving our problems, the question of living forever raises new and uncomfortable questions. No human has ever cheated death. To do so would fundamentally alter the human condition and the notion of humanity altogether.
It may sound appealing but the reality of living forever may not look so enticing once we delve into the intricacies of it.
The appeal of living forever is that we remove the unknown quantity that is death. Despite living on this planet for hundreds of thousands of years, no one has ever reported back from the dead.
No one has been able to definitively say what happens after we die. Do we ascend to heaven or burn in hell, depending on the life you led? Does our consciousness cease to exist? Or are we reincarnated as another human or animal, or even a tree?
These are questions no one has the answer to and which will never be answered. For a species that is afraid of the unknown, it’s the biggest unknown of all that plagues a lot of us.
Any postponing of that end or removing it altogether is bound to be welcomed by many. Today, Silicon Valley is pumping millions of dollars into research looking into the extension of human life.
Doctors such as David Sinclair have become popular in recent years with their proclamations that ageing is a disease and can be stopped with the right know-how. While I don’t doubt this is possible, like the enigmatic mathematician Ian Malcolm in Jurrasic Park, the question I’m asking is not whether we could stop ageing, it’s whether we should.
The ethics of this question are important to consider as are the practical implications. We may be able to extend our lives but if we reach 150 and our bodies are in a decrepit state, is it worth it?
What if we could live to 500? While this may sound great, let’s break this down. I’ve lived for thirty years so far, if I lived for another 470 years, that would take me to 2490. Considering the vast changes that occurred from 1520 to 2020, would I be able to process all that I had experienced.
Would I be able to retain such a mass of memories? If my friends and family were to die off before me, would there be a point to live? The love of those around you is what makes life worthwhile if I were to lose that what would be my motivation to continue?
These are all important questions that need to be answered and yet because we are far away from this reality we are unable to answer them. Sure, I would likely become cleverer and a well-revered figure of wisdom if I was to live to 500, but that in itself is not motivation to want to live for such a lengthy period.
Life that lasts this long raises uncomfortable questions about humanity and the state of the planet. The global population is estimated to reach to just shy of 10 billion by 2050, while this is expected to level off, it still raises questions about what would happen if we were able to halt ageing.
How would we structure society when death is less common? Would our offspring want to have children? Would we consider having more children? The questions just stack up and create an uncomfortable array of possibilities that become harder and harder to reconcile.
If life extension became the norm, it would require a huge restructuring of society. People could work for much longer and it could lead to certain people hoarding power and influence for an inordinate amount of time creating dictatorships that live on for years and years.
This brings us to another point. What would happen if death became an irrelevance for the elites? If they were the only ones with access to the means to extend life, it’s possible humanity could split into two opposing camps, the mortals and the immortals. It could resemble something like the hierarchy in the film Gattaca, where those who have been genetically enhanced are prioritised over those who haven’t.
Far from being a panacea for all our ills, the prospect of living for hundreds of years raises many questions. None more so than what it means from a personal perspective.
For thousands of years, we have been aware of our mortality and accepted our inevitable fate. Of course, there have been figures who have seemed to find an elixir that will extend their life but no one has succeeded.
Indeed, it could be argued that the inevitability of death is what has spurred us on to greater heights. Marcus Aurelius frequently reminded himself that time was limited. Seneca made the same arguments, as did many ancient philosophers.
The philosophy of memento mori, which translates to remember your death from Latin, is that we should make the most of our lives while we have the chance. As we don’t know when death may take us, it’s important to live now in case our end is closer than we think.
The problem with living beyond our current lifespan is that it takes some of this inevitability away. An accident will still kill us, but death from illnesses, heart attacks and cancer will become less common.
What this could mean for us is that the urgency we have in life is removed. We could become more complacent with our time and neglect to spend it in the best way. Month-long binges on Netflix might be common because why bother doing anything when we have hundreds of years to do what we want?
It sounds ridiculous, but when you consider that many of us already have these bad habits when death is a certainty, it doesn’t bode well for the future if death becomes less certain.
The fact is, it’s the realisation that one day we will die and far from now memories of our lives will fade, that spurs us on today. Knowing that life can be taken away from us at any point is the best motivator we can ever have.
Sure, there will still be people who are determined to achieve and create if they could live hundreds of years more, but there will be many that will feel melancholy about a future with no clear end.
Of course, I could be wrong and humans could embrace this reality ushering in a new golden age. It’s all conjecture at the moment, as without this change occurring there’s no way of knowing what will happen.
What I do know, after being involved in two separate car accidents while riding my bike, is that life is fragile. The realisation that you’re not immortal or invincible forces you to reevaluate your life.
Yes, death is unpleasant, but it provides motivation and meaning to life. Would that remain if we could live forever? I’m not so sure. The beauty of life is that it’s limited.
It forces us into action and makes us appreciate our family, friends and the world we live in. To live forever would be to become numb to all of this and therefore less grateful.
That’s not a world I want to live in. While we won’t live forever today, we can live well and properly by living with purpose today. In some ways, that may be better than living for 500 years or more.