The birth of human consciousness was the spark that forever cast us as separate beings from all other living things. Our self-awareness was the foundation from which sprung qualities that are uniquely human…both good and bad. With that dawning awareness came the knowledge of our mortality. We are alone in that knowledge. Other species may have a subliminal sense of it but there is nothing subliminal about it for us. Death awaits us and we know it. That knowledge has not led to feeble acceptance. We have always fought it and, to a limited degree, we have been successful. We have prolonged average life expectancy beyond what would have been conceivable to our distant ancestors.
The quest for increased longevity continues and—on the fringes of that quest—lies the image of immortality. How far will medicine, science and technology take us? How far would be too far?
The question raised here concerns mortality as related to typical lifespans that are not tragically cut short by accident, war or other tragedy. While those death events are certainly part of our experience with mortality this discussion relates to mortality as governed my natural causes.
Mortality-Our Escalating Awareness
Death. During our youth it nudges up against our existence only on rare occasions. It disturbs our innocent sense of invincibility and casts a temporary pall over our view of the natural order. Our first experience of it is quite profound as it moves the idea of death from a childhood spectre to a sharp reality. But, those blows are generally glancing in nature and are quickly offset by the elasticity of youth.
As we grow older our experiences with mortality become more frequent and the effects less fleeting. Our concept of our own mortality quietly morphs from a nebulous childhood worry into a hardened inevitable reality. That reality hoovers around the periphery of our adult lives and, in many ways, influences our thoughts, actions, and choices; both consciously and sub-consciously.
Very few of us approach old age without some regret at the rapidity in which our lives came and went. Why is the human allotment of life so short? Why 80 years instead of 200? Or 1,000? What is the rationale of being mortal?
Immortality – Why Not?
For centuries mankind has been chasing the elusive gateway to everlasting life. In the remote past our pursuit of immortality was based on mysticism and quackery. We have now taken our quest into the realm of science and biology. Rapid advances in the fields of genetics, microbiology, and nanotechnology have created an onrush of optimism among many leading experts within those fields of study. A few have even gone so far as to proclaim that immortality may be achieved within the next 200 years. A sobering thought and one that we should hold in utmost skepticism. Why? Because nature is much wiser than we are smart.
Nature’s Cold Wisdom
Higher-end law within the natural world is seldom—if ever—the result of pure happenstance. Nature seldom throws aimless darts. As we have advanced our knowledge we have found ways to manipulate many aspects of the natural order. We have tweaked, prodded, pushed and poked. We have improved much and we have diminished as much. But, in it’s infinite wisdom, and in a few critical areas, nature precludes our stumbling interference. Our mortality is very likely one of those padlocks that can not—or should not—be opened. Nature fully realized that immortality for man was a non-starter; and for good reasons….
Mortality – A Benefit to Our Humanity
Our humanity towards one another is, at best, inconsistent. The “better angels of our nature” shine forth in times of crisis and misfortune. We can be supremely benevolent. We can also be cruel, selfish and hurtful. The line of demarcation separating those opposing sides of our humanity is thin and fragile. We can too easily cross the line separating the kind from the cruel. Part of what keeps us loosely bound to our benevolence is our knowledge that we will all die. At a subconscious level maybe our kindness is supported by the realization that everyone in our lives will die. Maybe, under normal circumstances, that makes us just a bit more averse to inflicting hurt upon others.
Removing our mortality would remove a primary source of our compassion towards one another. Mortality reinforces sympathy. Immortality would breed increased indifference.
Immortality – Chaos
What if we had been designed as immortal? According to the Population Reference Bureau there have been ~108 billion humans born since we attained the status of “human”. ~8 billion of us are living today. That means that mortality has claimed ~100 billion. Our rapidly growing population of 8 Billion is cause enough for alarm. Imagine the chaos and deprivation that would exist if there was no such thing as natural death and we were bulging with a population of 80 or 90 billion. All aspects of our humanity would have been cast off long ago. We would have borne no resemblance to what we are today. Death would have still been prevalent but it would have been of the unnatural variety. Our numbers would have been trimmed via war, famine, murder and other deprivations. Not a pretty picture.
Immortality-An Empty Wish
And, finally, would we actually relish everlasting life on this plane of existence? Life with no natural end? When thought about rationally the idea actually seems frightening. Infinity itself is perplexing and unnerving. Much of our perception of the brightness and beauty of life stems from the finite quantity of it. Convert anything from finite to infinite and that thing is invariably diminished. Our experience of life would be no exception. Death is an unwelcome visitor but as an unnamed ancient philosopher once said “the thought of living forever is terrifying”.
In the final analysis it seems that nature knew full well what it was doing in strapping us with a limiting odometer……
Of course some extension of our lifespans would be wonderful. Advancing our healthy life expectancy by another 20 or 30 years would be great and we may be well on our way to achieving that. Anything much beyond that and we would likely be getting more than we bargained for.
Some of us will continue the good fight for immortality. In the words of Woody Allen…
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. Forget living on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”