It now seems inevitable that we will live to ages only dreamed of by our ancestors. At least, according to futurist Ray Kurzweil, who says humans could become immortal in less than 20 years’ time through nanotechnology. Certainly, humans have always quested for immortality, but the quest has usually been interpreted as a spiritual yearning to be united forever with the divine. Contemporary scientific advancement, however, seems to have transformed that lofty spiritual goal into something very tangible.
Science has steadily conquered obstacles to prolonging life, and has increased our life expectancy by almost 30 years in the last century. But our longer lives are pockmarked by new psychological and physical maladies that almost invalidate those extra 30 years. The ultimate goal, then, is not to live longer, but to live healthier, which, many argue, new scientific advancements will ensure.
Indeed, new technologies – stem cell research, the melding of man and machine, nanotechnology, et cetera – can improve our mental and physical capacities. Kurzweil argues that technological advancement will accelerate so rapidly that humans will be unable to keep pace, eventually augmenting their bodies with cybernetics, and thereby becoming “transhuman.”
The insistence that disease is unnecessary – that death is a false reality – sustains such arguments, and indeed, has done so throughout time. The conquest of disease and the end of aging are eternal obsessions, exemplified by Alexander the Great’s quest for the Water of Life, King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail, and even western literature’s oldest tale, “The Epic of Gilgamesh.”
Author Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “Except for man, all creatures are immortal, for they are ignorant of death.” It is not unreasonable to suppose that the quest for immortality is born out of a fearful knowledge of impending death. Indeed, this is suggested in Darren Aronofsky’s 2006 film, The Fountain, in which the protagonist overcomes that fear after centuries of questing, eventually dying willingly.
American astrologer Linda Goodman argued that constantly thinking about death makes us “death-conscious,” but, with the strong belief that death isn’t inevitable, we can create within our minds a reality in which we never die. As Queen Sophie-Ann states in HBO’s True Blood, “She’s convinced herself she’s immortal and so she is.”
While the quest for physical immortality is a story of consistent failure, it also reveals a continual truth – that immortality is not a physical prize, but a spiritual one. Indeed, the goal of the spiritual quest is to annihilate the self, so that we may live forever, united in the divine oneness. The quest for immortality on earth is a physical allegory of a spiritual reality.
Our literature and mythologies suggest that immortality is an intrinsic human craving. But, as understood from those stories, that craving is a spiritual quest that simply manifests physically, and when the quest is driven by the physical ego, it is doomed to fail. Obsession tends to destruction. While the obsession with living forever may lead to longer lives, without an acute awareness of life’s purpose and meaning it may also lead to the loss of everything that makes life worth living.
Nevertheless, as science continues to progress, we will continue to live longer. Indeed, as our advancements in medical science illustrate, we as a species have exhibited a desire to live longer and to rid ourselves of external forces that cause disease and death.
Freddie Mercury once asked, hauntingly, “Who wants to live forever?” It seems now that we may not have much choice – forever is only a few years away.