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According to the second law of thermodynamics, we cannot exceed entropy, the wastage and eventual death of all systems, including the universe itself. So, what would it mean to escape the inevitability of death? How contradictory is the idea of living forever?
Max Chafkin’s forthcoming book, The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power is a sharp biography examining the venture capitalist and entrepreneur who also invested millions of dollars in life extension research to defraud death. Part of Thiel’s personal brand is his strong connection to parabiosis, a field of experimental biology that studies the anatomical and physiological association of two organisms. Thiel, a troublemaker and a Christian who was determined to fight death, argued that if we accept that the future is unknowable, we might as well take action.
Since his resignation as Amazon CEO in July, Jeff Bezos has also participated in the contest by investing in Altos Labs, an anti-aging company that pursues biological reprogramming, with the goal of turning time inside a live mammal. Calico, a biotechnology company focused on longevity and funded by Larry Page, co-founder of Google, has been around since 2013, but new fields have emerged since then, such as liquid computers aimed at shutting down cells with viral diseases, a other niche area near Thiel’s heart.
Memento mori, Medieval Christians warned: remember to die. This principle is now disputed. It used to be that a man’s life lasted less than 30,000 days, but Aubrey de Gray, a biomedical gerontologist, speculates that the person who will live a thousand years has already been born. In Silicon ValleyAs the obsession with longevity has become a race to reconfigure death, billionaires are exploring a range of methods to extend and adjust their lifespan. Plasma from young donors, DNA reprogramming, tissue engineering, printing organs, cryonics and digital consciousness are some examples of the utopian dream. But what if we could indeed live forever?
Think of the fountain of youth that appears in the writings of Herodotus, the peaches of immortality in Chinese mythology or the life elixir in the Epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Mesopotamia. Technology powers, accustomed to the belief that there is a technological solution to every problem, view life as somehow recoverable. Think of the ankh that represents eternal life in ancient Egypt, blue roses – which are impossible in nature – depicted in literature and art as symbols of immortality. Forget Matthew Arnold, who claimed in the 19th century that life is long enough to contain everything.
Every biologist will tell you that death occurs in every cell of our bodies. Flowers die, stars die, the poets cry. Anti-aging is a tool for the rich, the activists shout. It’s a narcissistic dream, the survival of the richest, say the skeptics. Some in Silicon Valley agree. In his 2005 Stanford keynote address, Steve Jobs said death was “the best invention in life.” Elon Musk said he does not want to live forever, that he will be happy with 100 good years.
In his story “The Immortal” Jorge Luis Borges suggests that life gets its meaning from death, because with infinite time there is no motivation. In Wagner’s opera The flying Dutchman, a ship captain is cursed with immortality after trying to sail in a terrible storm and then doomed to slip over the sea. Perhaps the best chance of immortality is through one’s oeuvre. Or maybe not. “I do not want to achieve immortality through my work,” Woody Allen said. “I want to achieve immortality by not dying. I do not want to live in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to continue living in my apartment. ”
What if we can recharge our consciousness, then we can freeze our bodies using the cold storage technologies so that one day we can wake up from a long sleep? Wouldn’t that diminish the joy of wasting our days? Is not life meant to be vague and unknowable? If real life is full of danger and adventure, what feeling would a simulated reality offer that we can cherish? Death may be destruction, but as we chase eternal life, we end up like red buses in liquid-filled pens.
The English moral philosopher Bernard Williams argued that it is good that we are not immortal, as it would be impossible to remain attached to life forever and remain the same person. Williams insisted it would be bad to live forever, even under the best of circumstances. To avoid ennui, super-elderly people would lose their desires — after all, that is what motivates us to live — and be replaced by different people time and time again. It would eventually mean abandoning your identity, which is tantamount to death. Isn’t most of life a leap and a setback, waiting for things to happen that we dream of? If that were the case, we would continue to live – but it would no longer be us.
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