The Desire and Fear of the Immortal

A phrase from the immensely popular series, A Song of Ice and Fire, valar morghulis is translated as “all men must die,” an idea prevalent in human culture.  Humans tend to define many things in duality: light and darkness, positive and negative, life and death. These concepts are thought of to only exist in relation to one another; without light, there can be no darkness. So, can life as we define it exist without the notion of death; in other words, is something that doesn’t die even alive.

The Fantasy

From the desire to create Philosopher’s Stone, to the search for the Fountain of Youth, to modern stories of vampires, the idea of immortality pervades much of human history. What exactly about the notion is so fascinating? I believe it stems from a fear of death, or the unknown that follows. It is a completely normal fear to have due to the modern world’s obsession with “cheating death.” The idea of living indefinitely seems great, ignoring the looming downsides. These include the loneliness that comes with knowing everything around you is mortal or becoming bored when you’ve seen  and done everything. Immortality is rarely depicted as perfect; however, it is still viewed romantically and longed for.

However, even if someone doesn’t long for immortality, it seems that almost everyone is afraid of another’s immortality. This can be most readily seen in fiction writing. For example, the demon or such that cannot be killed by normal means (i.e. Voldemort, Dracula). This is typically shown as being achieved through a Faustian deal or something similar. The soul is given up, but the consciousness remains in the body. Is this why the notion is scary? Why are these characters shown as bad for achieving something that is so desired? I really can’t answer this, but it is an interesting double-standard nonetheless.

The “Reality”

Aside from the fantasy of immortality, the actualization of immortality is becoming not so far off. For better or worse, it may not be humans that will attain this immortal status. Research into AI (artificial intelligence) is moving forward every single day. In my biology classes, we discussed that consciousness is probably not be a single entity, but rather the various regions of the brain all working together (this theory is called the neural correlates of consciousness).

This theory is what many researchers in AC (artificial consciousness) are studying; although they must first discover what a consciousness is. But is it possible to synthetically create a consciousness? Is the consciousness equivalent to the soul, is the AC truly alive, can humans use similar technology to extend their existences? These have always been topics in science-fiction, but it may eventually become science-fact. Regardless if an AC is created in a decade, a century, or never, it still remains that we need to redefine life and death. How can we define a living being if it is no longer a requirement that it will eventually die?

One response to “The Desire and Fear of the Immortal

  1. This is a very thought-provoking blog post. Being (hopefully) a future neuroscientist, I’m both fascinated with and TERRIFIED by the concept of artificial consciousness. Your description of AC as “science-fiction [that] may eventually become science-fact” is spot on and is a great link between the ‘fantasy’ and ‘reality’ sections you have created. In addition to the trippy concept of transplanting or even creating new consciousness, the way you frame your blog is really nice, too. I like your thoughts about whether life can truly be described as such without the presence of death, and the way you explore this through both fantasy and reality. Looking at this dilemma on a smaller scale somewhat helps me collect my thoughts: it is often said that without pain there would be no joy and vice versa. As far as physical pain, I think this is wrong. For emotional pain, I would also argue that while pain may amplify joy at other times, I don’t think that they are entirely dependent on one another. However, blown up to a scale such as life and death or consciousness and soul, I’m not sure if this reasoning could stand. Excellent blog post.

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