A slice of immortality


                                                                             by Guido Eekhaut


This excerpt is a rewritten part of his book Op het Lijf Geschreven; het Lichaam als Private Obsessie (Written on the flesh; the body as private obsession) published by Pelckmans in Belgium in the spring of 2003. Original Language: Dutch.


Immortality is an unbearable paradox. It implies that we can live forever in a world where everything else is finite and limited. This will never work out well, since immortality assumes the non-existence of a final point and is in contradiction with the everyday reality.

This was already problematic for Pascal: we know that the infinite exists, he wrote, but we do not know how it presents itself, because it has no boundaries, like the ones we experience in our day-to-day relation to reality.

Immortality, in the full meaning of the word, seems an impossible quality. At the most we can work with limits. The civilization of mankind goes back for no more than some ten-thousands of years. We ourselves are but a mere step in the biological and historical evolution of that civilization, and not the culmination of it. We cannot predict what man and his civilization will be like in – let us say – another ten-thousand years. We can only make very broad assumptions.

Even then we can rule out a workable form of immortality. All matter is finite. A mouse, a stone, an elephant, the sun and the planets, all have shorter or longer life-spans. But they do not exist infinitely. Even the universe will most probably come to an end. How, then, would we even dare to dream about living forever?

A possibility, however, would be an artificial lengthening of our lifespan. I am disinclined to use the word natural lifespan in this context, since we have already extended it far beyond what nature intended, thanks to technology and science. Recently my wife read somewhere that scientist will make a lifespan of one hundred and fifty years a reality, maybe even in our lifetime. I hope they will at the same time improve our physical condition. I have arrived at only a third of that time and feel already much less fit than thirty years ago.

            But to extend our lives with fifty years, a hundred years perhaps, is a serious challenge to nature. Some time ago we learned we are the slaves of our genes. These genes direct us, and the only thing they want to do is propagate. They need living creatures like us to do that, and as long as we propagate, we make sure that our genes continue to exist. That way these genes are scientifically much more advanced than we are: they have, in a sense, attained immortality. Indeed, genes have lived on in our ancestors for thousands of years.

            Our genes regulate our reproduction. They make sure that we get attracted to a partner that ensures the greatest chances for healthy descendants. Once the question of descendants taken care of, we become superfluous to our genes. This explains why our ancestors had a much shorter lifespan then we. At the age of twenty or so they had served their use as far as the genes were concerned. Since people procreate mainly in their teens and twenties, and their children can make it on their own a decade later, there is no good reason for keeping parents around once they get older. That’s nature for you.

            We have, however, build a civilisation that had superseded the strict needs of the genes. We do procreate, but to us it has become more than a main goal in life. We are not willing to step aside after the kids grow up. Thanks to science, we are able to live longer, much longer, than genetically necessary.

            But can our body keep up with living so long? More and more we see diseases arise that did not exists in the past. Take Alzheimer. A typical disease for the old body. It’s nice to look forward to living a hundred and fifty, but not confined to a hospital bed for the last fifty years.

Of course we do not want to die. At least not as long as we feel healthy, as long as we have a viable future in front of us. But man has always known he would die, and from that realisation on he has been inclined to outwit death. Hence the many stories of magic, alchemy, myth and superstition, the elixir of life, all with the intention of fooling that old enemy and living forever.

There have also been people who have defied death, looked it in the eye, unafraid. Their way of handling death reflected the way they handled life: accepting its consequences to the limit. Life however has a few tricks up its sleeve, and punishes those who love it too much. The more intense and filled this life is, the more senseless death seems. The ancient Chinese had this curse: may you live in interesting times.

            We must ask ourselves what purpose is served by a life when it is extended over a century or more, even several centuries. My feeling is that mankind is far from ready for such an adventure. Even more: it is not suited for it, mostly on account of its physical deterioration. It would not bother me to reach two hundred years. That would give me time to read the five thousand books in my library. But by the time I’m halfway, I would probably no longer be able to read, let alone understand what I’m reading.

I wouldn’t mind celebrating my bicentennial, but in the unchanging body of a thirty-year-old.

Even then I’m not really sure if our mind would not freak out on account of sheer boredom. Life may be infinite, but experiences are not. Not physical deterioration may prove to be our worse enemy, but boredom.

There are other forms of immortality than the assuring the continuation of body and/or mind. Artists have made claim to their own kind of immortality, and who-ever has seen Michelangelo’s David in Florence, or any such timeless work of art, understands the essence of this sort of immortality. Philosophers argue also that immortality is the hallmark of the moral judgement of man, a matter of moral benevolence that people so to speak project as a shadow in front of them, into the future. That shadow does not disappear immediately after death, but evaporates slowly, and even more slowly the higher the moral standing of the individual.

            Such a morality does come neither easily nor naturally to man. He happens to be the victim and slave of his bodily passions and desires, which inherently accompany his material state. He lives in what the Brahmin call the ‘evil dream of Brahma’: our material and immoral world. His soul, that is an entirely different matter: untouchable and eternally pure, some presume, or spoiled by the original sin but not necessarily for ever damned. Some cultures believe that the whole world and all of nature is possessed by the spiritual world and that our soul may be transported into other entities: into other people in the first place, but also into animals, the moon, the river, plants, rocks. There is a form of eternal life in all these beliefs.

            The first men, so Lucretius tells us, found life sweet and agreeable. They parted with it only after much hesitation. Love for life, so the philosopher tells us, is common among all living creatures. The Gods on the other hand may reflect upon the universe without being vulnerable or mortal. They can explore the universe without fear that their place in the it would be questioned or threatened. Their age is undefined, their lifespan unlimited. Men, on the contrary, enjoys but a short lifespan.

            Epicurus wanted to address the false pretences concerning death. Fear for death could not be allowed to cloud the sense of life, so he wrote. The consequences of this fear are probably more damaging than death itself. Philosophy may soften that fear – not by analysing it but by putting it into perspective. The finality of death is commonly experienced as the Great Evil, an evil that has neither name not face as it is terrifyingly definite and utterly senseless. This Great Evil results in a large number of diseases of the mind, because no man can stand the wide chasm that to us is eternity.

            If one wants to escape the truth about death, one is destined to destroy oneself, because the life is only complete in death. Unfortunately it is religion that complicates our relation to death, because religion makes us doubt about the finality of death and about the level of morality needed to attain an existence after this life. An atheist knows that life ends there, and in that nothingness he recognizes the nothingness that preceded his life. The blind terror we experience when confronted with death is mainly a result of religion – but not of all religions.

            Why then does man accept religion, when it not only offers him consolation but also terror? Because it is exactly this religion which tells him the impossible becomes possible: eternal life. But only for the righteous. All other are asked to abstain. For them there is only eternal damnation.

Another aspect of immortality is loneliness. The individual mind exists as an authentic and autonomous given phenomenon, but is able to recognise other individual minds as its equals. Should we not be able to perceive the world around us, including those other minds, we would become insane, because we would be alone in the most fundamental sense of the word.

            Immortal man however – if he should exist – will be confronted with a space and a time without end and as such without purpose. Our life begets it sense and meaning only at the end of it. Before that moment arrives it is potential and unfulfilled. Death is the necessary final chapter of life. The human mind is too limited to grasp the principle of infinite space and infinite time. We know these things exist, but cannot really understand them. To live beyond our natural capacities, beyond what is naturally given to us in time, would deprive us of this finality that closes the book of life.

An immortal man would then be confronted with things his mind could not understand, that make him a stranger in this universe, where everything else is temporal and finite. Hence his loneliness. There is no-one to share his feelings and emotions, because they can no longer be expressed under human terms. Even if we would accept that existence is pointless than it would not become less so if immortality were given to us.

I have another thought about immortality for the religiously inspired reader. Why did God create mankind? Because man, ungrateful as he is, could turn to the many possible idols and false gods in order to beg them for this insane favour: to become as immortal as their God. And another reason: man does not possess the supreme patience of his God, allowing Him to postpone till eternity that ultimate question: what is the moment of death?

If man would be immortal, he would no longer live, because he would lack all moral and ethical feelings and principles. God, in other words, in His infinity, lacks these moral and ethical principles as well. Therefore His creation is pointless, it is a labyrinth without meaning. The advantage for man in all this is, that whatever he creates will be more ethical and contain more meaning than anything his Creator has made tot exist.

            This proposition is, however, untenable: everything man makes is a part of the Divine creation. They are inseparable. If God’s creation is pointless and without meaning, then so is man’s creation. The ultimate purpose of life may prove to be only life itself. Man will therefore not be able to create anything or any creature that is more purposeful than himself.

            I do not envy immortals – including Vampires. They have so much more to lose than we, mere mortals. We risk a few decades of common existence when we go into battle or occupy ourselves with some dangerous sport. They literally risk their eternity. Therefore they are bound to live different from us: the blood of life they drink is so much more valuable than ours.

            You will now understand why in this matter of immortality I find it difficult to choose between a wonderful and exciting future vision filled with technological and scientific ingenuity than will unravel all mysteries on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the careful necessity to think thoroughly through every urge to break with our natural selves. There is, more than ever before, the urgent need to ask the right ethical and even esthetical questions. Although none of these may be grounded in the sort of religious fanaticism that restricts the progress of science. Cosmic and human mysteries are not the privilege of some God or Creator, but are there for us to unravel. Evil does in fact find it origin when creativity and progress are narrowed down by prejudices.


© Guido Eekhaut, 2003



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