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Death vs. Immortality

I’d like to thank Emilio, Steve H, Rick York, and Justin, for their kind and encouraging comments on my previous post, “My Brain Event as a Jump-Cut.”

There’s nothing like a good bull-session about death and immortality! I’ll fuel the discussion with a few further remarks sparked by the comments.

(1) It will never be absolutely certain that death really is the end. There’s so much that we don’t know about the universe. But, given my personal experiences, my inclination these days is to go ahead and accept that death is the end, and see where that leads me. It’s worth mentioning that, throughout history, people have often used the promise of immortality as way to take advantage of their followers. Perhaps it’s just as well to accept the very high probability of total dissolution and find ways to get past the fear.

A related point. It’s very healthy and reasonable to fear and to avoid death—that’s what gets us through our lives! But we might learn to take a different view of the final and unavoidable encounter with the Reaper.

(2) It’s correct that it’s not accurate to use “black” to refer to the experience of total lack of consciousness. That’s just a conventional term for “no visual input”. But if there’s no “eye” and no brain, it isn’t even black. It’s void.

It’s also true that the void is what precedes my birth. (Unless I want to claim that my soul is reincarnated, and that between incarnations I hang out in the Heavenly Clouds, and when, eventually, I get overly interested in watching a man and woman having sex, I get pulled back into the material plane, down into a fertilized egg.)

I would say that the unconsciousness you experience during total anesthesia or as the effects of a brain event does have a different quality from the unconsciousness felt during sleep. There are no dreams and, upon awaking, no sense of an intervening passage of time. Thus my use of the phrase “jump-cut”.

I think it’s a unpleasant sensation at two levels. First of all, we like to feel that, at any time, we’re at some level monitoring our body and keeping it save. Secondly, the experience (or non-experience) of a total mental void is, as I’ve been saying, a stark preview of death.

(3) There are various partial forms of immortality that we comfort ourselves with, such as genetic immortality or software immortality. On the genetic front, we might, if we’re lucky, leave some children behind, bearing our genetic info and some of our memories. On the software front, you might make an impression on people, perhaps as an educator or a social worker. Another form of software immorality is to leave books, recordings or works of art.

These forms of pseudoimmortality mean something to us, even if actual death truly is a matter of lights-out and that’s all she wrote. When you’re younger you’re often concerned about living long enough to do things you feel you need to do—you want to taste the pleasures of life, and it may be that you also want to set up some pseudoimmortality of the genetic or software forms.

I still remember my terror, as a teen, at the prospect that I might die a virgin. If you’re fortunate, you live long enough to check off most of the things on your list. And at this point death begins to lose some of its sting.

(4) The SF notion of creating a replica of oneself, as in my 1982 novel Software, is a perennial favorite, popular these days among Singulatarians and Transhumanists.

Perhaps you save off your brain software and copy it over to a healthy young clone, for instance. Or perhaps, at some later time, as Steve H suggests, some future biohackers do this for you, creating an emulation of your brain software based on whatever lifebox type data you left behind. (“The blog is the road to immortality!”)

I’ve always been intrigued by the existential questions that arise here. Even if I manage to create a new Rudy, my old self still enters the void. My new self may have the illusion of being a continuous extension of my old self, but nonetheless, my old self—(and what does that really mean?)—is annihilated. I delve into this in more detail in my non-fiction books Infinity and the Mind and The Lifebox, the Seashell and the Soul.

11 Responses to “Death vs. Immortality”

  1. Narrenschiff Says:

    The thing that always bugged me about immortality-immortality is that it seemed to require some kind of stasis, and didn’t seem to jive well with the idea of being alive. Experiencing things changes us, and over long enough times those changes would probably erode our sense of continuity with our own past to the point where our mutable, trecherous memories would probably hold less weight than a good story. I guess this would make a hypothetical “real immortality” just a more dishonest form of “pseudo-immortality.”

    The sneaky paranoid part of my brain thinks some kind of happy-clappy immortality-and-cake-for-everyone Kurzweil kind of a deal would probably put my own self-interest squarely at odds with that of my future self, as one obvious solution to this problem of which me gets immortalised would be to just program in some unavoidable retrograde amnesia that kicks in every thirty years. Soon as I deviate too much from who I am now, I get reverted, wake up as me again and get to go on being me to a varying degree for another thirty years or so. Yeah, this’d mean a rough few months adjusting every time you reset, but if you need a recap on what happened in the last three decades you could just use your lifebox to catch up on the clip show version of what you missed. Sure, this’d effectively mean repeatedly killing someone with all your memories, but we were never very good at thinking for the future as a species. You had those memories first, anyway, and you can’t spend your time worrying about every putz out there who thinks he’s you. Even if he is.

  2. Gabriel McCann Says:

    My secretary Miss Type thinks that in
    “we’re at some level monitoring our body and keeping it save” the last word should be “safe”
    Have you ever read this book http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Posthumous_Memoirs_of_Bras_Cubas ?

  3. Ross Says:

    It may not be as common, but there are certainly times when the thesis that death is the end has been used to take advantage of people. “You can’t take it with you — leave it to me.”

  4. Gabriel McCann Says:

    …or seen this clip
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ALInv_wzSQ

  5. Gabriel McCann Says:

    But seriously if there really is a Life after Death what makes us think that it’s any better or different than the life we’re stuck in now? Jesus Wept. Lazarus Laughed. Jesus Saves. Satan Spends.
    I like the idea of eternal recurence or maybe we’re just condemned to keep coming back for another spin on the merry-go round of life until we finally get it right and make it into Nirvana.
    We’ll never prove what the final truth is really until we actually die so why don’t we just make the most of what we have and enjoy the ride while we’re on it.
    Life 101
    Question: Right now you’re alive. One day you’ll be dead. What are you going to do between now and then?
    Time Allowed: The rest of your life.

  6. Matthew Muller Says:

    When I think of only what happened a few minutes ago, I realize that that is gone. In a way we die every moment that we are alive. All that is left is our memories and some stuff, but we will never be that person again. I sometimes think about my teen-age self and wonder if I am really the same person. As always I love your blog Rudy. Thanks!

  7. emilio Says:

    My Zen-ish alternative.

    (5) We, the we we think we are, is just a collection, a small collection at that, of thoughts — tangentially related, disconnected — few of which are interesting. There is no real I there. It, the I, only has form in this history at this moment. Wondering about immortality is just one of its more stupid thoughts.

  8. Justin Says:

    Just wanted to note, that in the previously mentioned work of pro-pessimism, Thomas Ligotti’s “Conspiracy Against The Human Race”, the author does poo-poo the “well, the void caps both ends of our life” argument, but unfortunately my copy is out on loan, so I can’t tell you how he dealt with that. I recall being dissatisfied by Ligotti’s take on the “paranormal” (which he basically dismisses entirely… which is fine, many people do), but I cannot remember how he dealt with the argument that “we’ve already been there”.

    Coincidentally, I’ve just finished reading another book from Hippocampus Press (who also publish CATHR), a pair of short novels from the “Lovecraft’s Library” collection: Barry Pain’s “An Exchange of Souls”, and a translation of Henri Beraud’s “Lazarus”. Both novels are of the “weird fiction” genre (as such), and deal with apparent cases of two minds struggling to possess one body, and flirt with the boundaries of where one person ends, and another begins.

  9. Payohtee Says:

    Rudy, you wrote that:

    — If you’re fortunate, you live long enough to check off most
    — of the things on your list. And at this point death begins to
    — lose some of its sting.

    Actually, I believe that you’re far more fortunate if your list of things to do simply grows larger and larger as you approach the end. I believe that would indicate that living appears more and more interesting each and every day. Besides, for me, it gives me lots to look forward to in Heaven. Can’t wait!

    — And at this point death begins to lose some of its sting.

    Gee, I think it would be losing its glamour.

    Personally, I pray that your list grows without bounds! I like thinking you have much more to grace us with.

  10. Payohtee Says:

    Oops, please edit my previous comment to read
    “Gee, I think *life* would be losing its glamour.”
    I certainly didn’t mean to imply that death was glamorous.

  11. Rudy Says:

    They’re both glamorous, in different ways…just ask the goths!


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