Immortality Is Impossible

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 10 min.

A year ago, I drafted a short story into which I crammed too many ideas, among them that immortality is impossible. I’ll share an excerpt about that, the expository nature of which is a symptom of the aforementioned over-cramming.

The writing is rough and would need work if I intended to finish the story, which I don’t (I have in mind less convoluted ways to explore its many themes). But my arguments against immortality are sufficiently discernible, so I’ll share it. It also roughly accomplishes my desire for a context that poses at least some stakes for the idea.

Here, then, are four points of context.

First, the story involves one possible way in which I think strong faith, or belief, in a particular means of achieving immortality might play out. It involves other things as well, but I’ll exclude most references to them here.

Second, in the world discussed, the fashion, nearly universally followed, is materialism or physicalism. So they don’t believe in souls or any other sort of floaty, ethereal mind-stuff. You might think they’re wrong and you might be right,  but this is their belief. I agree with them.

Third, the immortality in question is meant to be achieved by transferring oneself to a computer, generally referred to as “mind uploading” or “mind transfer” or “whole brain emulation” and the like. Notice that if that is possible, and if immortality is possible, then so is something very much like the realms and states of being referred to with words like “Heaven.”

Finally, the excerpt is from a proposal to reintroduce illness, or at least the idea of illness (which the proposer calls dolorous phantasm, also the story’s working title), into a society that no longer has illness (or at least no idea of it). The details are complicated. For a small sense of the proposer’s motivation, see this post I recently published excerpting Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill.” (The proposer references that writing, in fact.)

Context aside, the point is that immortality is impossible. Unless of course we strategically redefine “immortality” along with many other words. But what most English speakers mean by “immortality” in 2020 will always be impossible. Or so says the character—the proposer—in the excerpt. I’m inclined to agree. And you?

Excerpt from “Dolorous Phantasm” Draft: Immortality Is Impossible

…excitement spread at the promise of immortality. Or at least of an indefinite existence whose natural expiration is fixed only to that of existence itself. But the means of that immortality were yet developed.

In the meanwhile, people came to believe themselves as good as immortal so long as they could survive the wait. “Are you immortal?” would be affirmed with unconsidered certainty. To suggest otherwise was grounds for ostracism.

No one obsesses more about death than the soulless immortal. One awkward step on an icy day and there go trillions of years of love and joy and, yes, boredom and an infinitely dwindling stock of excuses for missing your neighbor’s improv troupe—but, most importantly, there goes not being dead.

Excitement turned to panic and fear and mass agoraphobia. Humans rationed electricity and left their homes rarely until safer power and safer everything else were implemented. Death rates decreased, but this didn’t help the terror: any single demise was a bottomless tragedy that Could Happen to You, whose infinite depths Hunger for You.

Within a generation or three, the fear was uprooted by strategically developed and disseminated axiomatic adjustments to models about personal identity and death; a vagueness about the former and a crisp inevitability about the latter were required. Promoting the impossibility of a singular self’s indefinite perdurance continues today. It’s my job description. Here are the salients.

There is no ground to which an indefinitely ongoing self—under any meaningful conception—may be anchored. A continuously replenishing substrate (an indefinitely renewing Ship of Theseus made of carbon or silicon or graphene or whatever you like) isn’t enough. In other words, even if a computer’s smallest parts can forever be exchanged for new ones without disrupting its running software, this is not enough.

Many conceive of the self as a collection of memories. But memory of the sort relied on in that conception is an ever-changing, happy distortion, always incomplete (how many smells, baths, sneezes, blinks do you [wish to] recall in detail?), always wrong, always far more a rounding off of what was attended to than a disinterested document of a collection of discrete micro-events. This is bad enough over the course of a few days. Extend to millennia.

An indefinitely long life will consist of an intricate chainmail seamlessly overlapping selves, each sliver of whom will be annihilated as memories commingle and fade. No matter how durable the substrate—the physical medium on which everything constituting a mind or self or person or body is stored—any mind housed there would soon notice, “I’m no longer the person who once supervened on this locus of matter.”

In other words, even though no mind is ever instantaneously aware of this annihilating process, the moment is sure to come in which phrases like, “I’m not the person I used to be,” and “the person I used to know is dead to me,” become coldly literal.

And to rewind one’s store of memories to an earlier point would be to murder the person you are now: “I can’t tell you how long I’ve been dead, because I can’t fathom it. Or I could fathom it, but it would kill me more.”

Endowment, upon transference, of indefinitely perfect memory also fails, as the entity thereby constructed and self-identified—constructed (somehow!) from every received percept* from birth onward—would bear no personal relation to the imperfectly confabulated self who feared annihilation before that endowment.

(*It must be the percepts and not everything that happens—even in terms of perceivable stimuli—in one’s environment. Part of what defines a person is a particular point of view, or the sense of an ongoing locus of perception through which sensory information enters.)

Because the personal history you remember—with which you self-identify—contains at best a loose approximation of the actual events surrounding your existence, there’s no fact of the matter about which sets of memories to include were you transferred to a new substrate: these can vary wildly and it still be “you” enough.

The default solution is to map one’s brain at a particular moment, preferably just before transference. This seems right for the majority of people (not, for instance, PTSD sufferers), but rules out the endowment of perfect memory extending back to the time before transference.

Such concerns don’t exist for newborn infants who are transferred, though there are other things such persons might grow to worry about that are endemic to the new substrate (excepting superstitions that may be carried over by adult transferees), among them, physical limitations of storage that may require old memories to be replaced with new ones.

The full range of questions about beings not transferred to, but born within the new substrate is beyond my proposal’s topics of interest, and would require discussion of economic debates over whether monetary units should be cashed out in terms of information or energy. Worth mentioning, however is something usually left out of that debate: most of its solutions imply that all newborns should proceed from a single, ideal infant brain scan, from which complexity-plus-time ensures a rich diversity (whatever that word means to you) of future persons.

There are many reasons to worry about such a model. I mention it for its illumination of the personal identity, or “same-self,” question—or at least of that question’s challenges. With respect, for instance, to the ways such a “same-self” model differs, if really at all, from those models we now consider obvious given the biological facts of our own, pre-transfer world. More about this in a moment.

Suppose then, one is a newborn whose memory starts perfect. This won’t help. And not because it seems to promise a kind of hyper-PTSD. The problem here is that, for the perfect memory, there is no difference between having an experience once or infinitely many times, however one parses the word “experience”—in nanoseconds or infinities. This for many seems evolutionarily detrimental, but others disagree, given foreseeable differences in how selection will likely work in the transfer world.

The worry I’ll home in on, however is that perfect memory appears to have the effect of attempting to sustain a construction of wet and shifty and murky clay by kiln fire, so that the self becomes as solid as stone. But also as inert!

With enough time, an active self will live every possible life, eventually containing—or becoming—everybody and everything. This, too, is death. Any substrate can bear only so many permutations, a set that maps onto an even smaller set of possible experiences (see the Red-Green-Blue example below). Living indefinitely, to update my metaphor, quickly becomes like being locked forever in a single, motionless movie frame.

This may be true of imperfect memory as well, or, in contrast, may amount to a kind of dementia, so long as one wishes to hold onto the concept of an indefinite self. Neither prospect is promising.

And here we have returned to the “same-self” conception with respect to the new substrate’s newborns. Under the single-brain-scan model, all on the substrate not only start as the same person, but will eventually become the same person. (Which perhaps addresses the storage problem: we need only transfer one person. Does your conception of your own immortality allow for the uploading of only one mind, the mind of someone you’ve never met?)

… The person whom we all become will, from their perspective, be as motionless as a photograph. Call this extreme stasis the “height of boredom.” Or call it nothing at all.

Immortality is not sought for recycling the same life over and over (whether that life is remembered or forgotten), nor merely for sustaining the false impression of a continuous existence to a mind that cannot pinpoint its own pivots of birth and death and rebirth and re-death. …

… Any more than being cryogenically frozen alive for an eternity would count as living forever. …

… There is no way to satisfy the would-be immortal’s hunger for an indefinite stream of new experiences. Even if in desperation they seek otherwise undesirable experiences, such as severe pain or, somehow, the genuine belief that they are an instant away from death. …

… The experience-composed self that experiences everything becomes, simply, everything. And if the memory is restricted to human-like (which resource-scarcity may demand for most of us), so that the same forgotten lives are experienced on repeat indefinitely, this is no more consolation than learning that you will die tomorrow and start life again with no memory of today. …

… Arranging the atoms of experience in different orders won’t help anymore than would shifting squares of Red, Blue, and Green through their six permutations constitute much in the way of six sufficiently differing objects. Even if your mind is opened to previously unavailable intermediate experiences: the perhaps infinitely many shades between one red and another red are no more exciting than are their now-boring bounds.

Yet, perhaps paradoxically, such an availability opened up all once threatens another concern: sensory madness. Alternatively, a capacity to handle such sensitivities may be available to those who can afford them monetarily, but would require such an alteration in constitution as to kill the person who purchased it. And for what? To experience a red a millionth more blue than before?

(I would love to perceive more colors than I do. But I do not believe that infinitely more colors would translate to infinitely more meaningful experiences, much less to immortality.)

By now, perfect memory begins to seem the worst state of all. Indeed, with powerful enough technology, every possible permutation can be instantiated immediately, so that the entirety of one’s existence—from almost nothing to everything—will happen in a flash. For an outside observer, the population of immortals would appear an undulating materializing and dematerializing of the same person over and over again.

Humans have always grappled with sketches of these problems, but blindingly vivid terror under death’s shadow was not possible in the [post–immortality-promised, but pre–equilibrium-era] humans for whom annihilation was an abstract accident of nature, not a necessary condition of existence.

Once our models allowed for this necessity—models perhaps hindered or helped by the dread that dawned in tandem with the realization that the transfer of first-person perspectives, of minds, would be harder than thought, perhaps even impossible—the crawl towards [post-terror, post-illness, etc.] became a sprint. …

… The promise of immortality may have gone unfilled (as it would have gone even without our technological failures). But it did result in the healthier models of personal identity and death from which we all now prosper.

[Pause Excerpt: Here those reviewing the proposal begin to discuss its points on immortality and other topics not reproduced in this excerpt, such as the consequences and implications of these ideas—in a world that never did, and believes it never will, accomplish the transfer of minds to computers—for social group ontology, rights distribution, punishment, illness, Woolf’s aforementioned essay, and more, and, in the proposer’s opinion, the worst thing of all: boredom or “Stasis” arising from an indefinitely sustained “equilibrium” engineered by means of, well, never mind, it’s too much to get into.

The proposer worries that such a non-shifting “equilibrium” has resulted in “aesthetically malnourished” humans “stuck in a permanent point of view” that threatens to reintroduce a dangerous—i.e., worse model for—fear of death, much like the one that surfaced at the promise of individual immortality, but now at a grander, social-group scale: “the fear of utopia easily folding into itself, into dystopia. Pursue instead a phantasmic fear: real enough only to sublimate our more dangerous fears.”

The proposer sees “a large meta-equilibrium at stake, a necessary cycling between utopia and dystopia, itself a balance that averages out.” Otherwise, “a static perspective will settle us into a mass existential habituation, the way you forget your left sock, we may forget our own existence.”

Skipping ahead, the excerpt’s ending gives a glimpse of the world they’re in:]

Two insects fall dead onto the table, are sucked through the clear top and devoured by the pale critters inside, a hungry snow globe. …

… Around IbreVem’s sleeping head spins an insect ellipse of ruby greens and purples, shifting briefly here and there into a lopsided tetrahedron or some stranger shape. The onlookers slip into pareidolic reverie, an entrance into both IbreVem and themselves, the happy and sad worlds afforded to all with healthy models. Meaw appears especially moved (a helical formation dances apart from IbreVem’s halo, stirs in Meaw’s direction).

Related Post:
»David Chalmers Would Like to Be Immortal (And so Would I)

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