2000 - ON MORTALITYAccording to that international best seller, the Bible, we're each allotted "three score and ten years" (that's 70 years in the Saint Scot translation). Therefore, the members of my karass should be melting away soon. Marcel Braitstein, one of my neighbours, also born in 1935, on being admitted recently to the Jewish Convalescent Hospital, said that this was one of the few times being Jewish was an advantage. Well, this is one of the few times that for me being an atheist is an advantage. I choose not to believe that book. After all, it got birth wrong, it got re-birth wrong, and it probably got death wrong too.
I don't want to achieve immortality through my work -
The Presbyterian interpretation of that book, on which I was raised, certainly got life wrong. Their reading of the book reduced to life after death but not much before it; no sex before marriage and not much after it. Presbyterianism seems to be based on a morbid fear that somewhere someone is enjoying something. When I left Scotland 50 years ago, my mother gave me a list of thou-shalt-nots. I happened to do one of those things and found it was enjoyable. I've been using this list as a guide ever since. Come to think of it, there is no need for proscriptions against something you are not likely to do and we tend not to do things that are not enjoyable. My mother inadvertently passed on to me the manual for the good life.
The members of my karass have, as I said, become family and thus I start worrying about them. And of course for reasons that are not entirely altruistic - I hate to see them die. Looking down the list, I note that some of us have taken early retirement, chosen not to stay around for those "three score and ten years". Elvis Presley, always an innovator, started the trend in 1977 (dying young was a good career move). As I look down the list, I notice a tendency for the rate at which people take early retirement seems to be increasing. In 1998, both Sonny Bono and Eldridge Cleaver, and, since the year 2000, a spate of early retirees including Christina McCall, Carol Shields, Ken Kesey and Jerry Orbach. I assume this is just some statistical anomaly.
We tend to hear old jokes on reaching 70. That is, jokes about being old, all the way from Alzheimer's to Viagra:
At 70, I semi-retired - from the waist down.However, there's really nothing funny about being 70 (unless we are wearing shorts). I guess we've just got to make the best of it. It certainly is a relief to turn 70 after a year in which everyone snickers when you mention your age. The bright side of the "three score and ten year" prediction is that everything from now on is extra. The remaining members of my karass are going to enjoy every minute of it.
One member of our karass, Julie Andrews jumped the gun and provided the delightful take on the old jokes on her 69th birthday:
To commemorate her 69th birthday on October 1, actress/vocalist Julie Andrews made a special appearance at Manhattan's Radio City Music Hall for the benefit of the AARP. One of the musical numbers she performed was "My Favorite Things" from the Legendary movie, "The Sound of Music." However, the lyrics of the song were deliberately changed for the entertainment of her "blue hair" audience. Here are the lyrics she recited:There is little consideration of death in psychology. In behaviourist psychology, cause must precede effect. Death therefore can have no causal role in life because it does not precede it. Some psychologists avoided this phobia about teleology. Sigmund Freud argued that the aim of life is death. Ernest Becker explained much of human psychology in terms of The Denial of Death [BECKER]. Max Wertheimer came up with the Contemporaneity Principle: In the subjective map of the objective world - past, present, and future are all present. The past may be represented as memories and the future as hopes and fears. It is no more spooky to consider that present behaviour can be determined by future hopes and fears than that it can be determined by past memories.
Life does not have a happy ending. To compensate, I have argued that life has a happy beginning - that we are each given the conception-day gift of all our species has learned over hundreds of thousands of years of survival in a harsh arena. We are born wise. Some people are arguing, however, that life need not have an unhappy ending. They are trying to write a life script with a happy ending. Or, rather, no ending - that you and I will live for ever. This chapter will explore whether such a script is possible or whether they have just seen too many Hollywood movies.
The Human Genome Project has been identified with all the great human quests - for the Holy Grail (the cup Jesus drank from at the Last Supper), the Philosopher's Stone (that will turn base metals into gold), the Elixir of Life (that will provide eternal life), and so on. Of those quests, the most relentlessly pursued by our species throughout our history is this search for eternal life. The Holy Grail and the Philosopher's Stone would be tossed aside as useless trinkets if they were discovered in the Fountain of Youth containing the Elixir of Life.
We are the only species that knows it is mortal and thus the only species which aspires to immortality. This is a central feature of human nature. The search for immortality has been with our species ever since we realised that we were mortal. This desire for immortality is so powerful that Ernest Becker argues, in his Pulitzer Prize book, that much of human psychology is based on the denial of death [BECKER]. The search has been conducted within the context of religion. Much of the motivation for religion, which plays a large role in human psychology, is the promise of eternal life. We want to avoid the epitaph "Here lies Joe Blow, all dressed up with nowhere to go." Recently the focus for some people has shifted to science and technology, A number of disciplines - biotechnology, nanotechnology, cryonics, and artificial life - hold out some promise of extending life and, perhaps, even extending it indefinitely.
In pursuing this goal of immortality, we should remain aware of the various cautionary tales in our mythology. Icarus in his search for flight, Prometheus in his search for fire, and Midas in his search for gold, were all warned to be careful about what they wished for. They were all punished for their hubris in playing God. Icarus fell when he flew too close to the sun, Prometheus was chained to a rock and had his liver pecked out daily, Midas starved to death because he could not eat gold. Those stories have been updated for our times. Frankenstein was subtitled Prometheus Unbound. In the film Bedazzled, the hero offered wishes by the Devil gets more than he wished for, because he failed to be precise. The message is invariably "whether you are looking for God or for gold, when offered a wish, read the small print; when you make a wish, hire a lawyer to write the small print".
There are a long series of wish jokes with similar outcomes. Here is my personal favourite: Three men - an Englishman, a Frenchman, and a Scotsman - are crawling through the desert, on the verge of dying of thirst. A Genie suddenly appears, saying "Normally, I grant three wishes. However, since there are three of you, I'll grant you one wish each."The means of attaining immortality are further off than we think. However, we may also want to consider the end. The added years will be added on at the end and they may not be the best years. As our facilities decline, we may welcome the opportunity to get out of here. There is no point in solving dying if you don't also solve ageing. Everlasting life is not equivalent to eternal youth. We may opt for the short happy life over the long miserable life. Quality of life may trump quantity of life. Since we can die only by accident, we may lead excessively careful lives. A long miserable careful life, walking on eggs, may not be what we had in mind during our quest for eternal life.
At a social level too, it could be something of a disaster. The option of eternal life would, no doubt, not be universally available. It would of course be available initially to the rich and powerful. The poor and powerless could very well be farmed for spare parts. The urban myth of the person waking up after a sexual encounter with a prostitute missing an organ persists because of such a fear. A recent movie (The Island) and a recent book (Never Let Me Go) explore the theme of people being raised to supply spare parts. Decay and Death are the great levellers. Who has not taken some delight in the fact that some fabulously rich man is bald (with all his power and money he is no more able to control this than me) or some heiress dies (she can't inherit immortality). The planet is over-crowded already. It will be standing-room only if no one dies but others continue to be born.
Ironically, our pursuit of immortality could result in our obsolescence. Many members of the artificial intelligentsia - for example, Marvin Minsky, Hans Moravec, Ray Kurzweil - have made statements like this one attributed to Claude Shannon: I can visualise a time in the future when we will be to robots as dogs are to humans. We will be succeeded by superior entities which we created and which may condescend to keep us as pets. No doubt (I hope) they are talking tongue-in-cheek, while still secretly rejoicing in the fact that they have tongues and cheeks. However, if so many so-brilliant people have this vision of our future, we cannot dismiss it as a possibility. We certainly can't say that we have not been warned. My students who insist on talking of a fifth generation (the most persistent was Keiran Crilly, who persisted in the argument well after the course was over) are indeed right. This is very definitely a fifth generation, this is beyond my 2x2 box representing the co-evolution of the person and media as extensions. The artificial intelligentsia is thinking outside my box. When that singularity takes place and we move into a fifth generation, any of us still around will feel increasingly alien and alienated.
Whether our species will become obsolete is open to debate. However, one thing we know for sure is that each of us individually will become obsolete. In the film - What to do in Denver when Dead - the protagonist is offered Afterlife Advice. Here is some Beforedeath Advice. Forget about the afterlife (If you want a happy ending, go to the movies). Focus on this life. That you know for sure. No point in being distracted by the dim prospect of an afterlife into killing time in this life in your hurry to get to that life. This is just suicide on the instalment plan. One thing you know almost for sure is that you will become obsolete. Plan your obsolescence. Try to leave something behind which is your contribution (however small) to the accumulated wisdom of our species.