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004 - On The Quest For Immortality - Moral Letters for Modern Times

What drives the quest for immortality? At its root, it is an excess of greed and fear.
Mediterranean coastline with white and pastel houses - Moral Letters to Lucilius
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Your studies do you credit, and your progress will pay you dividends. For the sooner you find answers to the questions that vex you, the longer you will live in an enlightened state. An hour spent in quiet contemplation is better than a hundred spent in confusion, and so imagine the rewards for ordering your mind.

You should desire an ordered mind because you have an excellent chance at a long life. Ponder for a moment the amazing increase in life expectancy in just the last century and a half. In 1870, global life expectancy was a mere 29 years. By 2019, it had leapt to 73 years. You would think humankind would cry out with joy on this almost tripling in our lifespan. We hear not cries of joy but lamentation.

We lament that if some have already lived to 120, why can’t we all? If we can eradicate disease, if we can manipulate the very DNA that makes us what we are, can we not eliminate aging itself? And perhaps boldest of all, if we can digitize every moment of every day, can we not simulate in our computers worlds indistinguishable from reality, and so achieve immortality, at least in code?

What drives the quest for immortality? At its root, it is an excess of greed and fear. Greed for more of what tastes sweet, for unending pleasure and consumption. Can anything be more ill-considered? You may eat delicacy upon delicacy until your stomach groans, true. Even children soon learn gluttony comes with a price. Radical life extensionist Ray Kurzweil himself concedes that a corporeal immortal would suffer existential ennui, running out of not only things to do but ultimately even new ideas.

Not least, achieving immortality would mean the end of humankind. If none die, none may be born. For even though we add just one per century, in an eternity an infinity would come to be. Thus, to allow eternal life means to end new life. What could be more arrogant and selfish? All that have come before you have yielded their spot on the stage. What possible claim could we have to denying a place to all who would come after us?

“Not at all,” the critics claim. “We will create all worlds digitally, all that ever were, and all that will ever be. There is space for everyone and everything.” In ones and zeros, they aim to “live” forever, never growing bored or running out of new things to consume.

But nothing gains in value by being added up infinitely. As the last King of Lydia, and after conquering the Greeks, King Croesus’s gold hoard was the greatest in the world, but even this was insignificant compared to what the mythical King Midas could create with a touch. Who came more to regret his lust for gold? The value of luxury lies in scarcity; what all can possess infinitely, none will value highly in possessing.

Does the solution lie in finding some limit? Not infinity, say, but a thousand years? This would never satisfy those who fear dying. Because what they fear is fear of missing out. But can anything be more foolish? For whether your life is fifty years, one hundred, or a thousand, it shrinks in insignificance on the scale of the universe. What is a million years compared to the billions our cosmos has spun without us, and will spin on to come? To truly avoid missing out, you would have to master not only immortality for all time yet to come, but travel backwards in history to sample the eternity already swallowed by time.

So no limit can satisfy, and without limits we destroy the value of life. The inevitable conclusion is to give up the fantasy of immortality. By striving for what you cannot have, and would not want if you could have it, you destroy your peace of mind today.

An ordered mind knows the value of life is precisely that it is limited.

Be well.

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