What Will Happen If We Never Die?
Earlier this week I shared four ways we might live forever. But do we even want to? I asked the question on Twitter. This is what people think:
This was shocking to me. I knew some people would be reluctant, but 70%!? I thought it would be 20% tops. So odds are you, reading this, don’t think it’s good to live forever. This article will change your mind. Don’t read it if you don’t want your mind to be changed on this.
Based on my personal experience, my online research, and the answers to my Twitter poll, I’ve categorized the most common arguments against living forever. They fall into two broad buckets: the personal and the societal. The personal arguments are something like But I don’t want to live forever! That would be a horrible experience. The social arguments are like If nobody ever dies, the earth will get crowded! And progress will slow down with all these old people!
As we dive into the details of these arguments, you’ll realize why they are wrong.
Why You Personally Want to Live Forever
Here are the main concerns I hear from people who think they wouldn’t want to live forever:
Aging sucks. You lose your eyesight, your hearing, your muscles … You can’t do anything anymore. What type of life is that?
Not only can you experience little, but on top of that you’re a massive burden to those around you.
Many old people are tired and just want to die.
As you age you lose everybody you ever loved. You’re lonely.
After you’ve lived a bunch, you feel like you’ve seen it all. Everything becomes boring. Why would you want to live bored forever?
It’s not natural to live forever. The normal thing is to die.
It would be boring.
The only reason you do anything now is because life is limited. With eternal life, you’d live forever.
You can split these arguments in three groups:
Aging sucks and I want to die to end it.
Living forever would be boring.
Dying is the natural order of things and we shouldn’t mess with it.
Let’s address them.
1. Aging Sucks. Why Would You Want to Live Like That?
This is not about living decrepit forever, but with the body of a 21 year old.
Living forever doesn’t mean that your body continues to age. It stops or even reverses aging. What if you were healthy forever? What if none of your friends or family members died? What if you could have 200 careers? 200 families, if you want? It’s not just about increasing the lifespan, but also the healthspan1.
Aging is better understood as a disease. In fact, it’s the biggest source of diseases in the world: Alzheimers, diabetes, cardiopulmonary diseases, dementia… All of these are consequences of aging. If we cured aging, we would cure in one swoop all these other diseases.
Have you noticed how all these diseases grow with age? It’s because they’re all caused by aging. The normal processes of aging does things like damage and confuse your cells. They then cause problems around them, which evolve into the full-blown diseases I mentioned. If your cells don’t get damaged, or the damage is reversed, you don’t develop these diseases anymore. So when we’re talking about living forever, we mean healthy.
2. Living Forever Would Be Boring and Demotivating
What if you could choose to live a hundred years? One thousand years? One million? They key word here is choose. Nobody would take away your ability to die. If you want to kill yourself, or stop rejuvenating, you could always do that. Stopping aging is simply an option, with no strings attached. You can always go back to dying. Who would not want even the option?
That way, if you are truly bored after about one thousand years, you can stop living if you want. But would you want to? With a perfectly healthy body, you could explore everything incessantly. You could visit other planets. Take on any project you want and go deep. You could start your life over as many times as you want. Start poor? Maybe you can work your way to wealth doing something you hate, but then you can start doing something else. Maybe you can follow that doctor’s career, knowing you can always try yourself as an actor later.
Also, entertainment would probably be much better. What if Shakespeare was still alive? What kinds of works could he write after four centuries honing his skills?
Some people are concerned about demotivation: When we have death, we don’t procrastinate. We push ourselves because we know there’s an end.
I see several failures in that. First, procrastination assumes that what we’re optimizing in life is production or happiness per unit of time. Why? I think it makes more sense to optimize for total production or total happiness. With more time to achieve whatever you want, you might be less productive/happy every year, but you’ll surely be much more productive/happy overall.
Second, it assumes the right amount of life to avoid procrastination the one decided by evolution? Why not 2,000 years? Why not 20? It sounds weird that the optimal for procrastination is an external limit rather than something else we, as humans, could decide.
Finally, I think a time-limited life is much less fulfilling because, many times, you don’t have time to reach your goals. You are always in a hurry to make money, raise your kids, save for retirement, just in time to then spend it all. What if instead you had eternity to build up your wealth, raise your kids, and explore as many careers as you want?
It’s likely that most people would be interested in that, and those who are not would still be happy to have the option of living forever. They should also be extremely happy that others who are interested in living forever might do so, just for the sake of solidarity. So who would anybody try to prevent eternal life? It’s the other way around: everybody should be clamoring for more efforts to stop aging!
2. Dying Is Natural
But some people do want eternal life to not be discovered. They believe it’s not the natural order. If you’re in that camp, read Nick Bostrom’s The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant. If you prefer, watch this animated video:
Another way I would put it: those who still want to die have forgotten how it felt as kids when they realized one day they would die. I remember that moment very clearly. The existential angst. The unfairness. The tremendous sense of loss knowing that this amazing life would end one day. My parents explained to me very calmly that this was normal and that it happened to everybody. I learned to accept it. I buried the hope of living forever under tons of justification and acceptance. I watched stories about eternal life enjoying the pain of the eternal characters—stories told to help us cope with this unbearable reality. If science appeared giving hope, I would slash it. It’s impossible. These guys are deluded. Because entertaining the fact that it could be possible was too painful. It reminded me how terrible death is2.
Because aging has happened throughout history, we think it’s meant to be this way. But it’s not. It’s just how we’ve evolved to be.
Have you noticed that small animals tend to live shorter lives? Have you wondered why? The smaller you are, the more likely you are to be prey, so the faster you need to reproduce for your genes to survive. The more predators you have, the more you have to focus on growing fast and reproducing before you're eaten. Once you’ve reproduced, odds are you’re going to be eaten, so your genes haven’t evolved to optimize for longevity.
Conversely, huge animals don’t have predators. So evolution has optimized them for longevity. This is why the biggest terrestrial mammals have all disappeared—a sudden predator killed them, us—and why the biggest ones left are in Africa (where they co-evolved to be scared of us). It’s why sea animals are bigger—by the time we’ve had the technology to kill them all, we’ve shown some restraint.
Put another way: there's nothing magical about our age. We've just evolved to live to a maximum of ~120.
Dying is not natural. Dying is horrible. It’s something we’ve grown used to. Now that its end is near, all the world’s efforts should be focused on solving problems of this magnitude. Can you think of all the efforts put on COVID? Can you remember how in March 2020 the entire world’s attention turned to one single problem, and everybody across disciplines flocked to solve it? What if we directed the world’s attention toward stopping aging? We could stop aging if we just want it hard enough.
Once you present the argument in that light, people are much happier to support eternal life:
This mostly eliminates the individual concerns about eternal life. It leaves the societal ones.
Why Eternal Life Will Be Good for Society
What are the main concerns here? From the answers to my Twitter poll:
Overpopulation is by far the biggest concern, mentioned 40% of the time!
After that, it’s the concern that society would stop progressing. It would become ossified, at a much lower 13%.
It would increase inequality, either through concentration of wealth or political power (eg, it might keep dictators in power forever).
It might only be accessible to the rich.
Let’s tackle them one by one.
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