En Roma, conversé con filósofos que sintieron que dilatar la vida de los hombres era dilatar su agonía y multiplicar el número de sus muertes. (…) Ser inmortal es baladí; menos el hombre, todas las criaturas lo son, pues ignoran la muerte; lo divino, lo terrible, lo incomprensible, es saberse inmortalJ.-L. Borges, The Immortal
In the Middle-Ages, the philosopher’s stone was a much sought goal for alchemists. This elixir of life for rejuvenation was believed to contain the secret for achieving immortality. Interestingly, the lure for an infinite extension of the temporal limits of life has been a recurrent question and topic in human history.
In the past, although pressing, the idea remained a mere fantasy. However, as time passed, it appeared to be more and more tangible, even within the reach of scientists. Nowadays, recent technological advances make us contemplate the possibility for immortality, understood as the indefinite prolongation of life expectancy. In that sense, immortality would be achieved thanks to the abolition of the biological processes leading to ageing. Indeed, some scientists even went as far as promising the slowing down (Mattinson et al., 2017), or, even more, the reversal of biological ageing.
But is it fundamentally legitimate and desirable for humankind to lure for immortality?
Regardless of the question of whether we have solid scientific evidence to believe that it is feasible or not, the mere fact that some scientists make immortality their goal, and present it as achievable is symptomatic of the importance of this topic. However, this observation does raise many thorny issues.
This search for anti-ageing, or rather immortality-granting methods, is at the heart of a recent trend, transhumanism or, to some extent, posthumanism. The movement for transhumanism gears around the idea of an “enhanced humanity”, free of the biological constraints and limits, thanks to new technologies. In a context where the economic and social problems arising from an ageing population are becoming more pressing, this movement is gaining audience. All in all, benefitting from this general movement, the idea that scientists and the society should fight against the natural process of ageing is now rooted in our mentalities, and appears to be legitimate and, even more, desirable (Déchamp-Le Roux, 2016).
But is it fundamentally legitimate and desirable for humankind to lure for immortality? We argue that although it seems like a beneficial goal, such a pursuit proves to be dangerous and ethically condemnable.
At first, this quest for immortality might seem like a good thing. Death is feared and constitutes a source of anxiety for many humans. Hereafter, following the work by Arthur Caplan, death could even be perceived by some as unnatural (Caplan, 2005).
Beyond those prosaic liminary remarks, the desirability of immortality fundamentally poses the question of what makes our humanity. Immortality being the negation of death, the tricky interrogation to be answered is hence whether death is part of what constitutes our humanity or not.
Of course, before getting into this metaphysical reflection, let us acknowledge that immortality raises countless practical and concrete questions which, albeit they are fascinating, we will not deal within this article. Without any claim for exhaustivity, here are some of the key issues to be addressed. First, the technologies required to achieve immortality would surely be very costly, and would therefore not be widely accessible for all. In that sense, a world in which such a technology is available would be an even more unequal world, where there would be an inevitable gap between those who can afford it and those who cannot. Second, if our organisms become immune to ageing, how will the brain, and more specifically its ability to store memories, deal with that? Since we know for a fact that it has a limited storage capacity, this organ would probably not be able to recall all the events of our eternal lives unless a scientific breakthrough enhances our memory capacities, or creates some sort of external storage. Now, recalling that memories are what confer our identity at least partially -, the situation appears as very complicated. Third, this would pose a clear problem of overpopulation at the world level.
On a more philosophical ground, although such a breakthrough would eliminate biological death hence what is referred to as “natural death”, individuals would still be susceptible to die from accidental causes. Yet, in a world where death would have become unnatural and exceptional, in the sense that it would not be inevitable anymore, the loss of a loved one would be all the more difficult to accept.
Putting these interrogation aside, let us focus on what is, for us, the most serious problem that achieving a technology-mediated from of immortality would pose. And it is of philosophical and moral nature.
We believe that immortality would deprive life from its beauty. To our thinking, death is what confers value and meaning to life. Because we know that we are on this planet for a limited period of time, everything we accomplish, and especially the things we achieve thanks to hard work, are a source of self-pride and joy which, in turn, stimulate our motivation to keep achieving higher goals. This is the case because the time that we dedicated to the achievement of this goal could have been spent doing something else, but was yet “sacrificed” for this project. In a setting where we would be immortal, we would have an infinite period of time to achieve everything we want although that would still require some effort. As a result, an endless duration of life would threaten the very motor of human action, and probably annihilate, if not severely harm, the motivational mechanisms that push people to achieve their goals and retrieve joy and pride from it, and eventually go ahead in life.
Beyond that, immortality shakes up the mere substance of humanity that is, to our thinking, its ephemeral beauty, its temporality, and its precarity1“La muerte (o su alusión) hace precisos y patéticos a los hombres. Éstos conmueven por su condición de fantasmas; cada acto que ejecutan puede ser último; no hay rostro que no esté por desdibujarse como el rostro de un sueño. Todo, entre los mortales, tiene el valor de lo irrecuperable y de lo azaroso. Entre los Inmortales, en cambio, cada acto (y cada pensamiento) es el eco de otros que en el pasado lo antecedieron, sin principio visible, o el fiel presagio de otros que en el futuro lo repetirán hasta el vértigo. No hay cosa que no esté como perdida entre infatigables espejos. Nada puede ocurrir una sola vez, nada es precisamente precario. Lo elegíaco, lo grave, lo ceremonial, no rigen para los Inmortales.” (Borges, The Immortal). As Borges magnificently relates in a short story2Jorge-Luis Borges, The Immortal, in The Aleph and other stories, collection, 2004, Penguin Classics, an eternal life would eliminate our core humanity, and would bring us closer to machines.
For these reasons, we argue that the quest for eternal life is meaningless and dangerous.
Having said that, refusing an immortal-granting technology does not mean rejecting any research on ageing, and more specifically on technologies that would allow for a more healthy ageing.
We strongly believe that we, as a society, should not aim for immortality, but rather for a more healthy ageing, by delaying the onset of the diseases that are usually associated with aging (cancer, metabolic disease, cognitive decline3See, for example, the work carried out at the Aging, Metabolism, and Nutrition Unit (AMNU), in Baltimore: it “applies whole body physiological and tissue-specific molecular approaches to investigate effects of nutritional interventions on basic mechanisms of aging and age-related diseases” (https://irp.nih.gov/pi/rafael-de-cabo)., etc) and that explain why ageing is widely seen as a disease by definition. Not only would this strongly contribute to alleviate the economic and social burden of the rise of pathologies in an ageing population, but it would also be ethically beneficial, in that it would make the life of millions of people more enjoyable.
Conceptually speaking, this middle-ground position does not negate the naturality of death, as the inevitable end to one’s life. It rather acknowledges ageing as natural process in that it corresponds to a reality at the cellular and molecular level, resulting in visible features such as, for example, the loss of skin elasticity or sarcopenia.
Nevertheless, this process is not necessarily of pathological nature. We must bear in mind that the label of “pathology” is nothing but a social construct. A phenomenon is pathological because the society decides that it does not fall within normality. Consequently, the “normal” natural attributes of ageing will be what the social consensus decides them to be. However, I believe that this is where scientists come into play. By studying the biological processes behind those phenomena, they are the ones that can best contribute to this debate, and thus define what the natural process of ageing entails and what it does not.
Based on that, their goal will be to come up with innovative interventions in order to make sure that the prevalence of a number of what is considered as “severe pathologies”, associated with ageing, does not increase as much the people age. Finally, fighting against ageing at all costs is reasonable as long as it is made with the aim of allowing individuals to enjoy a healthy, yet acknowledged, ageing process as defined by the society. It is time we stopped stigmatizing aeging as a pathological and undesirable, unnatural process, and came to terms with the process of life.
Catherine Déchamp-LeRoux, « La quête de l’immortalité et l’utopie du transhumanisme », Gérontologie et société 2016/3 (vol. 38 / n° 151), p.97-111.
Arthur L.Caplan, “Death as an unnatural process”, EMBO reports, VOL 6, SPECIAL ISSUE, 2005,p.72-75
Jorge-Luis Borges,“The Immortal”, in The Aleph and other stories, collection, 2004, Penguin Classics
Mattison, J.A. et al., Caloric restriction improves health and survival of rhesus monkeys. Nat. Commun. 8,14063 doi: 10.1038/ncomms14063 (2017).