It is among the oldest and greatest questions humans have ever asked: what happens after we die?
Since early times, we have wondered whether our conscious awareness in this world is all there is to the experience we call reality. From such wonderings arise further questions: can consciousness endure after bodily death, and even more fundamentally, what is consciousness? Does it really exist at all, or is consciousness merely an illusion that arises from the complex background processes of the human mind?
However, while many continue to explore the possibility that some essence of ourselves might be able to endure beyond the body, modern science is taking a different approach to the problem by looking at how long the body can actually live. Could humans one day live for much longer than average lifespans today would dictate… possibly, in the quest for immortality, could people eventually live forever?
According to new research published in Royal Society Open Science, scientists currently believe that the upper range of human lifespans could be at least 130 years. However, some data still maintains that, theoretically speaking, there may be no real limit on how long humans could live.
Add to this the potential for regenerative science of the coming decades, and we simply can’t predict whether humans may one day be living for centuries, or in some cases perhaps even living indefinitely. What can be examined today, however, are the people who are actively pursuing the burgeoning field of longevity right now.
Silicon Valley’s Quest for Immortality
It comes as no surprise that functional immortality is an interest shared among many in Silicon Valley and other areas of technology today. Names that include Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Peter Thiel of Plantir, and a host of others represent some of the modern tech giants who have expressed interest in putting their dollars behind human longevity studies in recent years.
Groups like the non-profit Coalition for Radical Life Extension have also appeared in recent years. Described as a group “committed to advancing the interests of all stakeholders in the super longevity ecosystem”, the Coalition’s members say it achieves this through “public policy advocacy, education, awareness campaigns and community building.”
Despite the promise of longevity studies that are currently underway, some express concern about whether they might only benefit those who fund such efforts; that is, the super wealthy.
However, economists who have looked at the problem seem to have fewer concerns. Stefan Schubert with the London School of Economics and Political Science told CNBC in 2019 that even the most expensive technologies “typically become more widely available with time,” and that in the long term, the fact that many billionaires are taking interest in longevity studies will likely be a good thing for all.
Calico Labs, another company whose research aims involve human longevity, says it aims “to answer the most challenging biological questions of our time — how humans age and can we develop interventions to allow people to live longer, healthier lives.” According to The Guardian, the company has received funding to the tune of millions from the likes of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, among others.
Much of the focus of companies like Calico Labs involves the study of where biology and technology converge. With the help of technology, some futurists think that humans may one day be able to not only extend our lives indefinitely, but to escape the confines of biology altogether.
In 2019, Elon Musk made headlines with his neurotechnology startup, Neuralink, which announced its creation of flexible threads which the company said would eventually play a role in the creation of a brain-computer interface. While Musk’s technology is immediately aimed at freeing paraplegics from their disability by allowing them the ability to control devices with their brains, the broader implications are obvious: if a paraplegic’s brain could be used to control machines, then so could anybody else’s. Such futuristic technologies could not only grant mobility and other aid to the disabled, but may revolutionize the world as we know it… and even challenge our concept about life itself.
In other words, is the real future of longevity science carrying us in the direction of a transhumanist future, in which the lines between human and machine are irrevocably blurred?
What happens, for instance, when one’s mind exits the biological body and takes up residence in a machine? If a non-biological body becomes host to a mind that was born within a living human, is the person still alive if their consciousness persists within a new body that also happens to be a robotic one?
If this sounds more like a philosophical conundrum than a scientific one, that’s because it is, and many—philosophers and scientists alike—are wrestling with the implications of such future eventualities.
Talking with Live Science, philosopher Susan Schneider of the Center for the Future Mind at Florida Atlantic University recently said that the human quest for immortality, no matter how much future technology it may involve, really seems to have more to do with traditional concepts like the soul.
“I don’t think when people are even asking about immortality they really mean true immortality,” Schneider told Live Science, “unless they believe in something like a soul. If someone was, say, to upgrade their brain and body to live a really long time, they would still not be able to live beyond the end of the universe.”
Schneider’s observation does, at least, resolve one question for us: as far as whether humans could live forever, the answer is no… at least not if the end of the universe has anything to do with it.
Obviously, we are a long way from the day when human longevity will so greatly exceed current lifespans that questions like these will represent real issues for science, rather than topics of philosophical debate. Whether they have roots in philosophy, science, or even spirituality, it seems that all such questions have one thing in common: they represent issues that have troubled human minds for centuries, and with little doubt, will continue to do so for some time yet to come.
Follow and connect with author Micah Hanks on Twitter: @MicahHanks