Re: Desirability of immortality

Damien Broderick (
Wed, 18 Feb 1998 01:11:04 +0000

At 02:45 PM 2/17/98 +0100, Anders wrote:

>But overall, the "Tithonus syndrome" is rampant in literature,
>including science fiction.

>A basic assumption many make is that immortality means it is
>*impossible* to die, regardless of how much one wants to.

When I published an opinion piece in a newspaper recently, following the
reported telomerase breakthrough, I made these points explicitly - that
critics routinely cite myths, legends and horror fiction *as if these were
reports rather than inventions*, and that the actual long-term scientific
goal is rejuvenation plus longevity. Despite this, the comments I got back
were mostly blind to these qualifications. Who would wish to go on living,
people bleated, when it meant eating slimy medicated gruel in an old folks'
home - forever? Who was supposed to pay for all these deathless people on
the old-age pension if they lived for 200 years? How awful if the world
became ruled by a deathless gerontocracy of sclerosed brains in withered,
passionless bodies? Ugh, not for me, no sirree, Bob!

I get very annoyed by this sort of unimaginative response, except that--

--after all, it's the kind of realistic extrapolation you'd be inclined to
make if you knew only linear change and hadn't got hold of the idea of
exponential progress. And lifespan extension in this century *has* just
been of the `add another couple of years of decrepitude every half decade'
type. Old people's homes *are* filling up with brain-ruined ghosts with
damaged bodies. No wonder realists (as people generally regard themselves)
experience a profound anxiety about all this scary science stuff that is
making our last years a purgatory, both for the old themselves and for
those who have to watch over their suffering (and see their savings bleed
away uselessly).

Nor is appeal to myth and legend altogether as stupid as it might seem.
These *are* the distilled repositories of cultures' hopes, fears,
statements-of-what-cannot-be-said-directly... Maybe transhumanist thinkers
need to look more carefully at Tithonus and his buddies and learn what the
implicate order of those stories might have to tell us. (Possibly nothing.
Maybe just outdated night terrors. But maybe there's some stuff there we
could benefit from.)

Damien the programmatic contrarian