Who wants to live forever?

The human impulse not to vanish into oblivion is as strong as ever in our brave new secular world, writes Ian Harris.

A funny thing happened to immortality on the way to the 21st century. It has migrated from the ethereal realm of religious and philosophical speculation and come down to earth with a bump.

It has been institutionalised, commercialised and confused with living longer and longer. It's not the alluring mystery it used to be.

In the past decade, for example, scientists from several American universities have painted a futuristic picture of a world where more people will live to 120 to 180 years - some predict 300 to 500 years.

This, they say, will come about through tweaking the genes to stall the effects of ageing, improving diet, coping better with stress, cloning to replace worn-out organs, and countering degenerative diseases through advances in nanotechnology.

Whether living on and on is desirable or not is another matter. Think how it would add to the world's billions, distort countries' balance of ages and stages, strain health and social services, and upset family dynamics.

And it would only postpone, not negate, the age-old question of what happens when we die. Doubling or trebling the lifespan will not make us any more immortal - it will just give us longer to enjoy (or bewail) our mortality.

Nevertheless, entrepreneurs in the United States have identified a market for immortality, and have been quick to set up institutions and products to service it.

The Immortality Institute, for example, sees its mission as ''conquering the blight of involuntary death''. It points to scientific advances and a new immortalist philosophy as the way to a deathless future, and looks forward confidently to the day ''when human inventiveness drives the decisive nail into death's coffin''.

The American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine is busy working to find ways to slow, suspend or even reverse the deterioration and diseases of ageing. So, too, is the Foundation for Infinite Survival.

The Immortality Foundation takes a different tack, offering to store written, graphic and audio material in digital data banks that will immortalise their authors in cyberspace. It promises that its airy archives will put an end to anonymous and forgotten lives, making humans ''the first species to overcome death''.

Not so fast. They still die. All they will have done is help stock an electronic library. Besides, the underlying idea is not new. Shakespeare, for one, mused in a sonnet that the ''black ink'' of his verse would bring immortality to the object of his love.

In similar vein, the Principia Cybernetica Project holds out the prospect of immortality through advanced electronic control and communication systems. These would duplicate a person's distinctive mental processes on a sophisticated computer: in life, he or she would interact with the computer, and on death the computer would (theoretically) carry on where the brain left off.

The boast is that ''cybernetic immortality can take the place of metaphysical immortality to provide the ultimate goals and values for the emerging global civilisation.''

That is electronic triumphalism gone haywire.

Then there is the Cryonics Institute, whose focus is the whole body.

For a sizeable fee it will freeze the corpse in liquid nitrogen to prevent decay, in the hope of reviving it when future technology allows. This, it says, will awaken the body to ''extended life in youthful good health''.

With cash up front, does anybody smell snake oil?

More modest are those who see a more immediate form of immortality in the broad flow of life which everyone is part of, by dint of our biology, and particularly in the genes we inherit from our ancestors and pass on to our children and they to theirs in turn.

An immortality of sorts also lingers in the social memory, through creative achievements, halls of fame, memorial scholarships and foundations, mausoleums, even cemeteries.

On the bizarre fringe are cards from beyond (where the dear departed leave money to keep on sending birthday and Christmas cards to loved ones) and ''cremains'' (where the carbon in a person's ashes is used to create diamonds, or mixed with pulp to produce pages for so-called ''bibliocadavers''). In these ways, promoters say, the dead can continue to interact with the living.

Obviously, the human impulse not to vanish into oblivion is as strong as ever in our brave new secular world. These modern efforts, though, look more like a desperate effort to deny the reality of death.

At the same time, paradoxically, immortality appears to be fading as an issue for many Christians, though by no means for all. On that, more next time.

Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.

Add a Comment






Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter