On the Inconvenience of Being Immortal

The most fundamental premise of philosophy is our human ability to propose some reasoned answers to questions related to the meaning of life, our place in the universe and the plausibility of immortality. Long before Montaigne, ancient thinkers regarded the philosophical activity as the way to become accustomed to the idea of dying and make it part of our daily existence. After all, as Epicurus pointed out, ‘why should we be anxious about death when we will never encounter it; it is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death has come, and when death has come, we are no longer.’ Unfortunately, this logical trick is no consolation for those who, since born, are, in Heidegger’s phrase ‘old enough to die’ and doomed to physical extinction, sooner or later.

The ambition to cheat death is as old as humanity and the Great Pyramid remains the most sophisticated and the most splendid time machine ever conceived. Pharaoh Khufu’s body may have mummified some forty five centuries ago, yet, every dawn of every day, his eternal soul has soared into the heavens to be reunited with the sun god, Ra, in a timeless communion. When Christian theology provided hope to hundred of generations seeking the fruit of resurrection and eternal salvation, modern science proposes, instead, the cryogenic freezing of dead bodies until the cures for lethal diseases, are finally discovered.

Some scientists and a few philosophers are seriously anticipating a foreseeable time when nanotechnologies and robotics will be able to fix human ‘breakdowns’ and give rise to the first generation of immortal ‘trans-humans’. How would ‘mere’ mortals react to such an unbearable injustice? Would the lucky immortals actually enjoy their newfangled happiness when faced with the prospect of an endless repetition of the same? What would happen to irreplaceable human feelings like nostalgia or melancholy when every memory could be re-enacted at will and every action made perfectible ‘ad nauseam’. 

The invaluable price of life lies in its very precarious, transient nature. What could biological immortality bring to the human experience but a sense of infinite tedium. Would the search for ultimate wisdom still make any sense or would it become another obsolete concept? Would such a ‘perfect’ world still need philosophers? Are we, ourselves, happier than our ancestors with a whole world of information at our finger tips and the faces and voices of our dear ones, accessible to us within a few seconds? 

In his ‘Self-Portrait in Ideas, The Aristos’, the English writer John Fowles, surveyed the most central questions of philosophy, in a candid, personal fashion although openly inspired by Heraclitus’ maxim that ‘the cosmos is subjected to a constant, chaotic flux’. Once the illusion of a divine order and perennial certainty has been jettisoned, the best (or ‘Aristos’) can look at life in all its ever-changing guises with utmost serenity. Confronted with the ultimate mystery of life, that is, death, Fowles expressed neither hope nor panic but simply welcomed ‘the necessity of hazard’: ‘What is easier to believe? That there was always something or that there was once nothing? … This mysterious wall round our world and our perception of it is not there to frustrate us but to train us back to the now, to life, to our time being’.”

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