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The Case for Immortality
[Opinion] Our growth as a civilization and species demands we remove aging from the facts of life
Carlos Arturo Serrano Gomez (carturo222)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2008-03-22 14:31 (KST)   
During a homily given two weeks ago before an audience of young people, Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the meaning of being alive and argued that a hypothetical medical discovery that granted us physical immortality would not be desirable at all. A world without natural death, said he, would become filled with seniors who would not be open to change and renewal. He defended instead the immortality of Jesus -- the true life, in his words -- as the answer to our basic yearning for more life. This hope, and not scientific research, should be the source of our immortality according to him.

Now, it's not uncommon that he opposes any human endeavor towards greater freedom and autonomy, but this time he has managed to be especially, shamefully wrong.

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Getting Real

Immortality should not be understood as the magical invulnerability ascribed to many mythical heroes. Current research on the mechanisms of aging focuses on the processes whereby deterioration and repair of cells and tissues occur as a result of both physical wear and genetic programming. The accumulation of organ malfunctioning and metabolic failure up to the point where continued survival is threatened constitutes what we loosely call growing old. Making an organism immortal is about preserving its bodily functions and reversing any damage it suffers, not about making it bulletproof.

It follows that the only advantage enjoyed by an immortal organism would be its immunity to aging. But it would be still vulnerable to all the other ways there are of dying. Even assuming that it would gain more resistance to infections and toxic substances as a consequence of having a stronger immune system and an improved metabolism, physical destruction of the body (by fire, dismembering, predation or any severe trauma) would affect it all the same. Other basic dangers, such as malnutrition, massive bleeding or asphyxia, would persist. Murder and suicide would be still possible. When speaking about immortality, we should keep in mind that it doesn't entail an absolute inability to die, but only the assurance that we will be able to lead the life we want for as long as we want to.

Our Right Not to Die

Is more life better life? Opponents of birth control and euthanasia seem to think so. Yet those are often the same ones who protest that we don't have the right to alter the decree of nature.

However inconsistent such a posture may seem, opposition to birth control and euthanasia and willful acceptance of the inevitability of death follow a unifying motivation: fear. A fear of freedom so ingrained that it seeks to prevent us from exercising control over ourselves. We must submit to the fact that death is a natural, unpredictable event, inherent to being in this world, they say.

But why should we?

As sovereign individuals, by taking contraceptives we affirm that life will not come as a random, uncontrolled force; instead, it will come only when it is consciously wanted. By researching the methods of prevention and reversal of aging, we affirm the same thing about death. Just as we are able to decide how and when we create more life, we should be able to decide how and when we die. The possibility of achieving an indefinite lifespan appears thus as a logical extension of our right to govern ourselves.

If we have any right to life, and no other right is harmed by this one, there should be no limits to our full enjoyment of it. To argue that we aren't entitled to more life puts into question what the right to life really means.

Supporters of assisted suicide offer a precious argument to this discussion: life is a right, but not an obligation. If our lives are ours to manage and decide upon, we cannot be forced by law to live more than we want to. By the same token, we should not be forced by nature to live less than we want to. It's not a matter of fate or allotted times. It's a matter of freedom and personal choice.

Managing Our Fears

Fantasy literature tends to display immortality as an intolerable burden. In a way, this reflects the mindset we're accustomed to judge our actions by. As mortal beings, we train ourselves to be efficient, punctual and goal-oriented. Any distraction, idleness or procrastination is sternly frowned upon. That's not the natural rhythm of things; it's the one you adopt when you have only a limited amount of time to work with.

We are always in a hurry. We pick a career and jump headlong into pursuing it to the end. We step on each other up the success ladder. We overspecialize. We make plans. We bother with insurance and mortgage payments because we don't want the future to take us by surprise. We work as maniacs for decades while we await our retirement. We wish our children have it easier than we did, and are unable to help them when they don't. Our finite life is a rabid lemming race, and the finish line is always too near.

Thus it doesn't surprise that fiction writers should deem immortality unbearable. Our ordinary life on this earth is already enough of a problem as it is. Infinitely more of the same would be hell. But I think it's not the frenzied rhythm that makes it a nightmarish vision; it's the mindset. The authors who demonize immortality assume we will have the same priorities and preoccupations, but that will not be the case. Rather, a profound reorganization of values will occur. Most of the hardships of our current life matter only because time is a factor.

Also, several of the difficulties that make life undesirable would be seen from a new perspective. The depressed who turn suicidal do not really want to die; they are overwhelmed by the demands of life and have run out of options to ease their suffering. We judge the importance of events according to their relative weight against the whole of our expected lifetimes. When the whole grows to virtual infinity, our present crises will be revealed to be just momentary. Guilt, regret and shame will be lighter pains to endure when we find we've got endless chances to amend our mistakes.

The Details

Whenever there's any hint of meddling with our genetic makeup, there are warnings of elitism, eugenics, and expanded state surveillance. In the specific case of getting rid of aging, the questions that necessarily arise are: Who are to benefit? How many? At what cost? What difference will it make? How long will it take for everyone to have it, if it ever comes to happen?

These worries are justified; there are practical consequences that should not be ignored. If medicine discovers how to end aging, it will make a huge difference if you treat Stephen Hawking, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Dalai Lama or Fidel Castro. Imagine a powerful mind freely laboring its way into the secrets of the universe. Imagine a bag of muscles, always young, for the world to envy. Imagine wisdom unhindered by fear. Imagine a dictatorship with no end.

At this point it is not clear whose responsibility it will be to decide whom to treat. It depends heavily on who make the discovery, who they work for, and what the method used is. Pharmaceutical companies can't be blamed for being greedy, as any private business is, but this most vital of issues (pun fully intended) will only worsen their reputation if they aren't careful. Standard ethical boundaries lose their reference points when confronted with the ultimate question about life and death. And a technique that requires prenatal intervention would trigger a different wave of controversy from one that can be applied on already existing adults.

Apart from the obvious disappearance of the entire field of gerontology and its related products and services, society will undergo drastic transformations. Just to mention one example, our financial system will need to be readjusted to account for the emergence of a sector of the population with no prospects of becoming economically inactive, no pressure to get rich within a lifetime, and a tremendous capacity for long-term indebtedness.

Why It Matters

The Pope's homily on life and immortality included this valuable fragment:
"Man is called to open himself to new dimensions. He is a being who knows. Certainly, animals know too, but only things that concern their biological life. Human knowledge goes further; the human being desires to know everything, all reality, reality in its totality; he wants to know what his being is and what the world is. He thirsts for knowledge of the infinite, he desires to arrive at the font of life, he desires to drink at this font, to find life itself. "
Of course, his point was not the same as I'm making here. His argument was intended to show why human life is incomplete and unsatisfactory without knowledge of and acquaintance with God. Mine submits the view that scientific inquiry into the mysteries of life and death is not only desirable, but necessary if we are to keep growing in knowledge about ourselves and the universe. One of the hallmarks of our species is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Indeed, for our dearest ambitions to be realized, from personal self-fulfillment to faithful preservation of cultures to serious space exploration, biological immortality becomes indispensable.

We need not fear it. It will not remove our humanity. On the contrary, it will help us become more reliably who we want to be. We will be able to be fully honest to ourselves. We will no longer dread the future. We will achieve maturity as a species, no longer subject to the whims of time, but free to follow the course we desire. We need not fear it. It is the end of our gravest fears. It is the step we must take. And then, looking at the universe as an equal, we will build the life we really wish to have, given enough time.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Carlos Arturo Serrano Gomez

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