I’ve just read a review of the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. I’ve also read a short extract from the book in a newspaper and I’ve listened to a few articles about the book on the radio. I haven’t got time to read the actual book itself though, as life is short and I’m a slow reader (This is relevant to the point of this post, so keep reading).
According to the review of the book (in the Guardian, by Galen Strawson), Harari claims that ‘the leading project of the scientific revolution’ is the Gilgamesh Project: ‘to give humankind eternal life’ or ‘amortality’. I’ve never heard of the Gilgamesh Project myself, however I do know that Gilgamesh was a heroic character from a Mesopotamian epic poem who sought to destroy death (although an internet search for Gilgamesh would have you believe that the name is chiefly associated with a fancy restaurant in Camden, London).
Amortality, if you were wondering, is a sort of immortality-lite. Its definition is that you keep living until you die as the result of extreme violence, catastrophic accident or such-like. This is unlike full-blown immortality with which you get to live for ever no matter what.
Harari apparently isn’t certain of the merits of amortality, and doubts that it would bring much satisfaction to people were they to achieve it.
I think he’s probably correct.
Amortality has a certain superficial appeal – for instance it would give me enough time to actually read Harari’s book rather than simply dipping into reviews and articles about it – however here are a few points that need to be considered before judging it to be desirable.
I won’t spend any time here going into the potentially dire problems associated with actual immortality itself. Suffice to say that if you were burdened with eternal life you wouldn’t be eternally grateful for it. (For more on the down-side of eternal life click here.)
With amortality it’s possible to live more or less for ever as long as you avoid anything that’s going to kill you. This sounds great, as it implies that you could live for several hundreds of years or even thousands of years and then choose to die once you’d become bored with existence. The trouble is that I don’t think it would work quite like that in practice.
It’s hard to tell, because we’re not in the state of amortality ourselves, and if we were I’m sure that our outlooks on the subject would shift somewhat, but I think that in an amortal state, in which death is not necessarily inevitable, the status of death would change radically.
Look at it this way – we mere mortals know of the inevitability of death, so for us it’s mostly a matter of when it comes rather than if it comes. We have to confront the subject of death with a degree of grudging acceptance. If however we were amortal and could in theory avoid death simply by being extremely careful, then death would possibly become a totally different problem – it may even become a worse spectre than it is to we mortals. Death for amortals would cut off their access to immortality. True, people probably wouldn’t opt for true immortality if they really thought about it, but once you’ve got the option it’s probably a hard thing to throw away despite its manifold drawbacks. If you were an amortal, death could be a problem because you’d have so much to lose – all those years stretching into the infinite future. On top of this, the fact that death wouldn’t be inevitable would mean that people may not develop a sense of acceptance about it, so it would be a real threat in a different way than it is for us for whom it’s the natural end point of a finite span.
I’m assuming that if people managed to become amortal it would be due to a mixture of medical and technological innovations. Disease would be conquered and injury and wear-and-tear would be remedied by the use of replacement parts or by some form of bio-technical intervention.
If amortality didn’t include the fixing of injuries (other than truly fatal ones of course, such as those caused by falling into a mincing machine) life would eventually become unbearable due to accumulated handicaps, either large or small. Imagine if you lost an arm in an accident one day, then a hundred years later you lost an eye, then some time after that a leg. Then the other eye, the other arm, the other leg. Everyone would be queueing up next to the mincing machine. In such a case the state of amortality would only exist in theory rather than in practice – lifespan would be self-limiting due to assisted suicide.
It’s easy to imagine that people who lived in such a state would be so pathologically risk averse that there lives would be unbearable.
A world in which all injuries are repairable would be preferable, but that inevitably brings its own problems unfortunately, although perhaps less onerous ones. One of these is the downgrading of non-fatal risk. If all risk of injury (other than fatal injury) becomes nonexistent due to the ease of neutralising the consequences then people’s feelings about risk and aggression would possibly change. There’d be no thrill in minor acts of risk such as driving a car too fast or skiing. Obviously. in our world skiing and driving too fast bring with them the possibility of death, however in the world of the amortals I suspect that great efforts would be made to protect the individual from this fate while conducting those activities, such as by the introduction of bizarre headgear that is guaranteed to protect the brain from terminal crushing.
Any high risk activity in which there was the slightest chance of death despite any interventions or safeguards (such as bizarre headgear) would not be indulged in at all.
If we were to acquire an amortal lifestyle the chances are that we’d need our brains to be rewired somewhat in order for us to cope with the consequences of having a potentially very long lifespan – but then with a rewired brain we probably wouldn’t appreciate the fact that we’d acquired such a lengthy existence. So there’d possibly be little point in the whole exercise in the first place.
We only want an extended lifespan because of the brains that we’ve got now, not because of the brains that we’d have then.