Repaire me now, for now mine end doth haste,
I runne to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday;
I dare not move my dimme eyes any way,
Despaire behind, and death before doth cast
Such terrour, and my feeble flesh doth waste...
- John Donne, Holy Sonnet I
I'm terribly afraid to die. I'm not afraid of death. Death pervades our culture and moves us to beautiful things. I've stared at dead bodies without recoiling. They weren't horrible. They weren't beautiful either. They were mockingly strange, teasing me with resemblance of someone I once knew. And tombstones, their arrangement row upon row, in all shapes festooned with words sometimes predictable sometimes not--they can be beautiful; and the urns in which the charred ashes of a once-animated body can be works of art. Edgar Allen Poe, Howard Philips Lovecraft, and the macabre writers back to and through Dante's descent into hell and Ezekiel's dry bones; EC comics, Hammer Studios, and all the pop cultural horrors; the cultural engagement with the possibility of the end of all possibilities that is death is endlessly fascinating to me. No, I'm not afraid of death. I'm afraid of dying.
Dying is not entering the unknown. It's entering perpetual unknowing. Never to see, never to know, never to experience and transform and do again. The world will move on without us. We're not suspended in a box where we no longer interact. We are forever excluded. Even without being able to know our loneliness, dying is the loneliest thing there is. Dying is always uniquely one's own and in that uniqueness we are forever and absolutely separated from all else.
Like the drowning man, I grasp at the floating wood hoping it can support me, hoping I can float to some shore "beyond the utmost bound of human thought," thousands of years into the future. I long to see the unfathomable changes spring up before me and sink behind me. If a scant hundred years can get us electricity, the moon, and the internet, what remarkable things are awaiting four thousand years from now? And why am I cursed never to see it? If those who dream of ways to live forever are correct, maybe there is a chance of living forever.
Let's have a look.
Good News: Okay, enough poetry. Let's dive into the hard world of technology. Anyone who has watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, as this nerd has proudly done, has heard of a nanoprobe. They're not just science fiction. The difficulty with making nanotechnology is, well, that it's smaller than our cells. So it has to be constructed nearly molecule-by-molecule. I won't pretend to understand the science. What I do understand is that if they can be programmed to repair cells, nanobots can effectively destroy aging. As Aubrey de Grey points out, the leading cause of death is aging. If we don't age, we can theoretically live indefinitely. Of course, the second leading cause of death is stupidity. The odds are that eventually some moron will hit you with a bus.
Bad News: If there is to be enough nanobots to do their work, they must be self-replicating. So there is a possibility that the nanobots will begin to transform everything they encounter into more nanobots. As they increase exponentially, they will transform all matter into nanobots until the entire universe will becomes a monolithic blob of Grey Goo. Whoopsy daisies.
2. Cryogenic Freezing
Good News: Well, we can't expect nanotechnology to develop overnight. It's possible I won't live to see it become a possibility. What I can do in the meanwhile is have myself frozen, right? That's right. There are procedures designed to freeze living tissue with minimal cellular damage. Contrary to what you see in movies like Encino Man, one cannot be unthawed from a normal block of ice. Cells are destroyed by the crystalizing effects of freezing. The techniques currently available are far from perfect. There is no way to take anyone out of 'suspension.' The hope is that at some point in the future science will be able to take those frozen out of the deep freeze and somehow ensure their cells aren't damaged. There are those who say, "It doesn't work! Why bother?" But it's like this: You have a much better chance of being brought back to life if you're frozen than if you're wormfood or ashes.
Bad News: What they don't tell you about cryogenic freezing is that they like to do this little medical procedure before they freeze you called--now get ready because this is very technical jargon--"decapitation"! That's right. They go all guillotine on you beforehand. Most of the cryogenic tanks are designed only for heads. There are a few that are designed for whole bodies, but not many. Moreover, these tanks are watched over by cryogenics societies, people who just happen to have an interest in cryogenics themselves; they are not necessarily top scientists or scientists at all. There's also always the possibility that the cryogenics institute won't pay its electricity bill and anyone frozen will start to melt like an ice cream sandwich.
3. Brain Transfer
Good News: This is probably my favourite solution. It may be possible in the future to upload one's mind to a computer. Hopefully not a computer running Windows Vista. But jests aside, assuming that the mind really does contain the whole personality, being able to transfer and secure copies of one's mind is an ideal solution. The destructibility this fleshy container for the mind will be done away with and we can last forever in computers, robots, and perhaps some day biological drones for our minds. Those biological drones can be clones or not; but they could offer the opportunity to experience being a physical human again. If it's destroyed, we always have a back-up mind for another drone.
Bad News: Who decides who gets transferred into a computer? Can our minds really be reduced to pure data? If our minds can enter computers, can our minds get viruses? And if our minds can be perfectly computerized, can't computers have minds of their own? There are a lot of questions about such a highly-speculative procedure that needs answering. The worst of the news at the moment is that it's probably so far off in the future I needn't worry about it.
4. Copying Procedures
Good News: Here's the most speculative of them all. Remember the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where it's discovered Scotty preserved himself in a transporter buffer? Well think about that for a moment. The way those transporters work is to transform the whole body into data and reconstruct the body from the data. So you're temporarily dead. And the length of that 'temporariness' can be extended indefinitely. As long as the folks in charge of transportation want to keep you in the buffer, a perfect copy of you is waiting to come into being. Not only can they wait twenty years to put you back together, they could even make two or three of you if they really desired. If such technology existed, we could have "saved states" for our own lives, kind of like what Microsoft Office does for your Word documents--y'know, for when Vista inevitably crashes.
Bad News: Is it really you? This is something that puzzles me. There's a copy of me. But didn't me, this me, this body, get torn apart? That copy just thinks it's me. It has all the same experiences, same memories. But in reality it was born at just that moment on the transporter. It's a haunting thought. It's possibly just ontological pedantry, though. Oh yeah, if the transporter chief is a nut, he can make dopplegangers; watch out for that! This is also another technology that's so far in the future it's not really worth thinking about.
Good News: Hey, I'm open to ideas. Maybe these Hindu characters know what they're talking about. Maybe some essence of me will be recycled over and over again based on how good I am. It's a comforting thought. Socrates believed in a sort of reincarnation. He also believed you could recall all the knowledge you lost during the process of forgetting that occurs between lives. And of course there's no shortage of past-life regression charlatans to help you out.
Bad News: Even if it were true, it doesn't seem like anyone ever does recall their past lives. So it's difficult to see how realistically it is you who is reincarnated. I am my body and the experiences this body has been through; I don't know how I can conceptually separate my personality or 'soul' from my physical existence and my biography.
Bad News: Doesn't exist.
Sorry, sorry, I got ahead of myself.
Good News: Well, if there were such a place as heaven, it would be great. You'd be detached from the action in the world, but presumably in a position to continue as a Knower. Knowing is more important than Doing for my personal fear of dying.
Bad News: There's something strangely sterile about the idea of being perched in an astral plain, detached from the real world, merely watching and/or rejoicing in the goodness of some deity. Don't believe me? I'll leave the great Peter Cook tell you.
So that's about the gist of it. Our prospects for living indefinitely don't seem great. But it's better than nothing.
The truth is, all we can really hope for is to do enough and create enough that really matters in the world, to touch enough lives and transform enough minds, that in some sense we go on influencing other people. We live forever in one another, in the species continuing, with our without our own DNA. Our minds have opened to greater levels of consciousness that evolution could have predicted and many of us recognize humanity as one great brother-sisterhood. It still hurts me not to see where this great human family of mine is going and how it will develop, how my little works in this world will influence it; because no matter what great things I do for the world, I can never feel the satisfaction if I'm dead.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.