How Will Humans Respond to Immortality?

Austin Considine from Motherboard recently interviewed UC Riverside philosopher John Fischer about his project to study immortality and its implications to the human condition. During their conversation they talked about immortal jellyfish, near-death experiences, the problematic Higgs boson, and the possibility of living for billions of years.

Somewhat astoundingly, Fischer just received a $5 million grant to fund the Immortality Project, an initiative that will involve scientists, philosophers, and theologians from around the world; they're set o investigate immortality in all its guises. This coming June, Fischer and a panel of judges will announce 10 winning proposals to study the topic, with each winner receiving $250,000. The project is being funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

And there's no dearth of material to study. "Human immortality is a broad subject," writes Considine. "It is science and religion. It is futurism and conservatism. It comprises biology, cybernetics, philosophy, theology, cosmology, and quantum physics."

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

I wrote a story recently which showed that neurons—like the hydra —may live indefinitely when unattached to the mortal confines of their host bodies, a discovery that seems to bring that brain-in-a-jar scenario a bit closer. Futurists like Ray Kurzweil believe we will have achieved immortality—or at least super-long term longevity— in about 40 years. What do you think?

I’m very interested in this and it’s definitely within the scope of the grant. We have proposals on jellyfish, hydra and related biological creatures. There are also interesting studies of certain worms that reproduce asexually. And so biologists are looking at these creatures with the possibility of making discoveries that could help us cure aging. Kurzweil isn’t really a biologist; he’s a futurist and an entrepreneur. But, yes, he’s a big proponent of supplementation and enhancements of various kinds…

Yes, cybernetics—couldn’t that be part of this picture?

Yes, eventually. Kurzweil and others believe that at some point we will have achieved a biological status where we could still be run over by a truck or hit by a meteorite or die in a fire but we would be medically immortal. We wouldn’t age or die of natural causes. And, once we get to that point, we’ll be able to live long enough that eventually we’ll be able to upload the contents of our minds into computers or cybernetic devices.

I, myself, am skeptical that this will be achieved in the near future. I think 40 years is probably optimistic. I’m also humble enough about these things to know that we’ve been wrong before about the possibility of scientific progress. But I am struck by the fact that you can go in for a simple operation and it can go wrong. So I’m a bit more skeptical.

The two also talked about the potential for boredom and dissatisfication, a subject we've discussed before here on io9.

You’ve written about death as being “bad” because it deprives us of things we know we will enjoy. But is it possible that one reason we enjoy things is that we know they won’t last? I think of Dorian Gray’s constant ennui. Proust writes a lot about the dissatisfaction in love that comes right after one possesses the object of his desire. Would we even enjoy immortality after a while?

Yes. Well…that’s a great question. I think Heidegger is famous also for arguing that our awareness of our own finitude structures our lives, kind of gives it meaning, makes everything precious and urgent. And that, without it, our lives wouldn’t have that meaningfulness. I think that insofar as you really love someone—really, intensely, genuinely love someone—you don’t want to lose that person. You don’t want it to end. And you’ll go to great lengths to maintain the beauty and intimacy of the relationship and not let it dissipate and not let it end.

There's a lot more to this fascinating interview.

Image: Aronofsky's The Fountain.