Humanity's Quest for Immortality

One of humanity's oldest impulses has been to conquer death. From Egyptian mummification to the Christian heaven, the idea that some way, through material or spiritual works, we can transcend the mortal coil and live forever is highly seductive. These day, since and technology promise longer lives and immortality, ranging from the modest and sensible precautions of eating correctly and exercising, to the radical biomedical revolutions professed by Aubry de Grey and Ray Kurzweil.

Between antiquity and post-modernity lies a broad area of research into immortality that hasn't yet been explored. John Grey has come out with an interesting new book examining the quest for immortality in the Victorian and Soviet eras, revealing a fascinating secret history of spiritualists, eugenicists, Soviet utopians, and the science fiction writer HG Wells.

Darwinism is impossible to reconcile with the notion that humans have any special exemption from mortality. In Darwin's scheme of things species are not fixed or everlasting; there is no impassable barrier between human minds and those of other animals. How then could only humans go on to a life beyond the grave? If all life were extinguished on Earth, possibly as a result of climate change caused by humans, would they look down from the after-world, alone, on the wasteland they had left beneath? Surely, in terms of the prospect of immortality, all sentient beings stand or fall together. Then again, how could anyone imagine all the legions of the dead – not only the human generations that have come and gone but the countless animal species that are now extinct – living on in the ether, forever?

Science could not give these seekers what they were looking for. Yet at the same time that sections of the English elite were looking for a scientific version of immortality, a similar quest was under way in Russia among the "God-builders" – a section of the Bolshevik intelligentsia that believed science could someday, perhaps quite soon, be used to defeat death. The God-builders included Maxim Gorky, Anatoly Lunacharsky, a former Theosophist who was appointed commissar of enlightenment in the new Soviet regime, and the trade minister Leonid Krasin, an engineer and disciple of the Russian mystic Nikolai Fedorov, who believed that the dead could be technologically resurrected. Krasin was a key figure in the decisions that were made about how Lenin's remains would be preserved.

Weakened in Britain, belief in gradual progress had ceased to exist in Russia. An entire civilisation had collapsed, and the incremental improvement cherished by liberals was simply not possible. The idea of progress was not abandoned, however. Instead it was radicalised, as Russia's new rulers were confirmed in their conviction that humanity advances through a succession of catastrophes. Not only society but human nature had to be destroyed, and only then rebuilt. Humans did not go on to a new life on the other side. There was no other side. When humans died they returned to dust, just like other animals. But once the power of science was fully harnessed, the God-builders believed, death could be overcome by force. Eventually all of humankind could look forward to scientifically guaranteed immortality, but the process of technological resurrection would begin with the most valuable of human beings – Lenin.

Read the full excerpt at The Guardian.

The protagonists of John Grey's book are the immediate sources of the current technological quest for immortality. Though the scientific barriers we face today are different, the philosophical quandaries and contradictions of physical immortality are similar. What will life mean without the end of death? How can society evolve when the powerful never relinquish their power? Is living forever truly the highest goal that we can devote ourselves to? There a difference between individual immortality, and the continued survival of humanity as a whole. For our species and our culture, death is tragic, but ultimately necessary and even unavoidable.

Should we seek immortality, or are our scientific resources best used elsewhere? John Grey's history of the strange quest for immortality may help us decide.


  1. I've always believed immortality has got to be awful, especially when considering the consequences of quantum immortality or decreasing fertility rates.

    Does the book consider what might happen as evolution continues to move forward around humanity?

  2. Whats quantum immortality ?

    Also, Immortality is awesome. Just ask the amoeba.

  3. So, "immortality isn't so great" arguments always worry me, because it's likely that we're only saying such things to convince ourselves that mortality -- which we fear -- is desirable. I've never met a healthy person who wished for death, we can't know what immortality holds until we give it a try.

  4. Quantum immortality is a continuation of the Quantum Suicide thought experiment that assumes the MWI is correct.

    The brain cannot observe events after death

    However, there will always be a universe out there where no matter how unlikely, brain death did not occur.

    Since one can only be aware of universes where you're brain is alive, you're mind is forever preserved.

    Its a bit like the argument that if you were never born then you would not be aware of anything.

    This scared the shit out of me when I was younger.

  5. manyworlds is just so horrendously philosophically unsatisfying that I'm binning it in with religions at the moment.

  6. I can see that. The problem I generally have with immortality stems from the possibility of isolation. As social animals, it would be terrible to be the last person alive for all eternity.

  7. Also, the christian idea of the afterlife always annoyed me. You're stuck either praising God in heaven forever (boring) or burning in hell being tortured forever. That and it's too "simple" too much of a crowd pleaser. Bring on reincarnation

  8. MWI is one of those things that breaks when you try to integrate it with consciousness, IMO. The math may be very pretty, but such a large system as a brain behaving in a non-classical manner weirds me out.

    I haven't read the book, just the review. Maybe if my boss buys it, I'll do a proper book review.

    Evan, did you ever play the computer game Afterlife? It was kinda like SimCity, except you had to manage Heaven and Hell, zoning them for appropriate rewards and punishments. You could also influence the mortal coil to send different types of souls your way. A very funny game, but too hard for my little mind at the time. I wonder if there's a way to get it running on my current PC.

  9. You guys who are opposed to Many Worlds should probably read about the Many Minds interpretation, which is a much more palatable extension.


    Indeed I think its the most reasonable of all the interpretations.

    There may be subtleties that I don't understand, and for that you should consult Alemi. I hear he has a pretty bitchin blog now, got featured on Reddit recently.

    Anyways many minds roughly says that, we should not view large systems as simply "collapsing" instantly whenever quantum systems contact them, they just become entangled with them, and that's alright. While in reality, everything may constantly be in bizarre entangled states, from any one pure state, our usual interpretation of quantum holds, and a strange "collapse" event has happened where all of this quantum probability has disappeared. Since our minds only really exist in classical, pure states, to explain the experiments, we only consider how the system appears from any pure state, not from the entangled perspective.

    Because if we "condition" on our brain having any particular state, all of the quantum probability is on the particle having collapsed in a particular way (the states become tightly entangled due to the measurement interaction), from our perspective, the position of the particle is conditionally certain, in the sense of conditional probability.

    So even though reality at large formally exists in an entangled state, no experiment that we could perform could ever detect this -- the "many worlds" that have appeared are each internally consistent, and any experiment which is performed will map a linear combination of pure states to a linear combination of pure states plus experimental results consistent with those pure states. From our perspective, there has been this inexplicable "collapse", yet what actually has happened is that we ourselves have become entangled with the result.

    I think that's pretty much the core of the idea. I'm not sure how formally correct my description is, because quantum probability is different from the usual probability and I'm not sure if this concept of "conditional quantum probability" which I'm trying to appeal to is really legitimate, but it approximately summarizes discussions with Alex Alemi circa 2009.

    I find this idea quite pleasing and palatable. Please inform me if I've destroyed something beautiful.


    As for this "quantum suicide" (paradox?) it strikes me as totally speculative and bizarre. No one knows what happens to you after you die. Its one of the eternal questions, and the physicists don't actually have any idea either.

  10. Beck says :
    No one knows what happens to you after you die. Its one of the eternal questions, and the physicists don't actually have any idea either.

    As an aspiring neuroscientist, this is what happens when you die. Your brain stops. The neurons die. As they die, they may release one last burst of activity. This activity may sample the natural distribution of states in the mind. If this corresponds to any experience at all, it might be a brief and disjointed re-living of a random sampling of probably experiences. That was speculation. Certainly, if you die on some sort of drug that alters neural function this probably won't happen. Regardless of what happens as the cells are dying, you are very soon completely dead. Metabolic processes stop. Microbes eat your brain. Your atoms go back to do other random things on Earth, thats it.

    I ridiculous to state "no one knows what happens after you die". This is like saying "no one knows why the tides happen", in that any degree of uncertainty concerning our belief of what happens after death is on the same order of magnitude as our uncertainty about other highly reliably physical phenomena.

  11. Ok, as for many worlds / many minds. I can't make much sense out of it, but this is what I've got :

    Quantum events can be considered as a source of noise in the brain. And by this I mean, whether a particular wave function goes one way or another creates a bit of entropy.

    The brain is a classical system. Every process I've encountered averages over enough events that quantum behavior is just noise in your classical model. Phototransduction may be an exception because spikes can be triggered by single photons.

    So, many worlds is somehow saying "we don't have a model that can predict what values this noise process will take, so we will assume that there exists a world for every possible string of values for the noise".

    This possibility seems far less likely than the possibility that we've just got our physics wrong and need to go back and do it again. Maybe providing a link to Alemi's post would be helpful ?

    I don't want my physics to say : There is a real possibility that for the next 5 minutes all photons miss your retina and you believe you're completely blind, only to have things go back to normal. I may misunderstand, but it sounds like many-worlds permits this event.

    Like, I need some guarantee that quantum system converges on the classical system. Features like information and entropy need to be preserved and no stray too far from their expected values. Again, maybe Alemi's post explains this ? Link ?

  12. @Mike

    So, sure that may be physically what happens to your brain when you die.

    This "quantum immortality" idea seems to postulate that as long as in one of the many quantum parallel worlds, your brain is still alive, then your consciousness "jumps" to the brain which is still alive, and so you can never die because there should always be some extremely low probability quantum tunneling event which can save you from death.

    Classically, yes we know what happens to brains when we die. But you can do no experiment to determine where "your consciousness" goes after you die. It is not a physical question. And people continue to debate mind / matter duality to this day.

    Regardless of how convinced you are by "according to Occam's razor, what you see is what you get, and when we die, all experience stops and our minds cease to exist", there is certainly no evidence at all to support this idea of quantum immortality.

  13. I'm having trouble understanding your last phrase.

  14. There is no link to the alemi post, it was a conversation in person...

    His blog is here if you want to check it out