strategic philosopher Max More
The Myth of Stagnation
This is a slightly-edited excerpt from a chapter (“The Psychology of Forever”) I wrote back in 1996, but which has never been published. Although I might write some of it a little differently today, I haven’t changed my views about any of the ideas expressed here. You will find this essay along with related thoughts as a chapter in the forthcoming book, Death and Anti-Death Volume 7, edited by Charles Tandy.
is no more than a bad habit which a busy man has no time to form.
André Maurois The Art of Living, “The Art of Growing Old” (1940).
Life is good, some will grant. Life offers numerous paths and possibilities. But isn’t life good only because it is limited in length? If we lived indefinitely, potentially forever, wouldn’t we eventually stagnate, lose interest, become bored?
Certainly this belief has been pushed at us for centuries through stories, from Jonathan Swift’s Struldbruggs in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Eugene Sue’s The Wandering Jew (1844-5), and Karel Capek’s The Makropoulos Secret (1925), to more recent tales as presented in John Boorman’s 1974 movie Zardoz.
The world of Zardoz, set in the distant future, has been divided into two realms: the Vortex, where dwell the immortals, and the Outlands, home to the short-lived Brutals. The decadent, impotent immortals have lost their vitality. An especially intelligent Brutal, played by Sean Connery, invades the Vortex, introducing chaos, destroying their society, and returning the immortals to a natural state. That is: dead. Even in the heroic Highlander movie, the grand prize for the sole surviving immortal (“There can be only one!”) is wisdom-with-death.
I suspect this cultural tendency to see indefinite lifespan or potential immortality as a curse serves as a psychological defense against the historically undeniable fact of human mortality. So long as mortality was an unalterable part of the human condition, it was understandable if we fooled ourselves into believing that physical immortality would be dreadful. I am suggesting that mortality no longer need be accepted as inevitable. If indefinitely extended longevity is achievable, continuing to cling to the immortality-as-curse myth can only destroy us.
To begin uncovering the errors fueling opposition to extreme longevity, consider first the distinction between seeking immortality and seeking indefinite lifespan. Suppose we were to grant that we might become bored of life, whether it be centuries, millennia, or eons from now. We might even grant that boredom was inevitable given a sufficiently extended life. Granting these suppositions for now, what follows? Only that literal immortality—living forever—would not be desirable. But forever is infinitely longer than a billion years. If there were, in principle, some limit to the length of a stimulating, challenging, rewarding life, we could not know where it lies until we reached it.
If immortality should not be a goal, indefinitely long lifespan can be. If, one day we find ourselves drained, if we can think of nothing more to do and our current activities seem pointless, we will have the option of ending our lives. Alternatively, we might change ourselves so radically that, although someone continues to live, it’s unclear that it’s us. But we cannot know in advance when we will reach that point. To throw away what may be a vastly long stretch of joyful living on the basis that forever must bring boredom and stagnation would be a terrible error.
Stagnation sets in when motion ceases. Motion, change, and growth form the core of living. We will stagnate if we either run out of the energy to stay in the flow of life, or if we exhaust all the possibilities. I suggest that while some people run out of energy at any age, doing so is not inevitable. I further suggest that life’s possibilities are literally unbounded. Certainly we can see this to be true for millennia to come.
Theoretically arguments from physics, cosmology, and computer science indicate that even true immortality and infinite variety cannot be ruled out. First, then, why do many people run out of energy and settle into a stagnant decline? If we survey the diversity of personalities around us, one thing will become clear: People get bored because they become boring.
Sadly many people don’t wait for old age to become boring. The prospect of extended longevity repels them since even their current lives are dull. What makes them become weary? They make themselves that way in several ways.
1: They have developed a habit of thinking boredom-inducing thoughts. They tell themselves there is nothing to do, that “it’s not worth it”, that activities are boring when they need not be.
2: Their vision of their lives consists of a narrow tunnel-reality, like the view of a mountain range seen through the end of a pipe. Having become so used to the way they live, they fail to see the opportunities beckoning them.
3: They have become apathetic. Laziness sets in when people develop an attitude that says “Entertain me”. Apathy reflects a disengagement from living. Laziness forms a vicious circle with underactive imagination. If we are too lazy to imagine new careers, new activities, new places to go, we will see only the old and familiar. If we see only the familiar and unchallenging, we will find it hard to get excited.
4: Related to these problems we find an unwillingness to experiment. Whether fed by fear or laziness or lack of imagination, getting out of the youthful habit of experimentation eventually produces a jaded, dull individual.
There may be no excuse for the young to be bored, but what about the “old”? Two factors explain why boredom or stagnation have been thought to naturally accompany old age. One of these is a self-reinforcing belief that youthful activities are not for the old. Younger people may snicker if they see someone in their 70s on roller blades. Children seeing their parents seeking adventure may tell them to “act their age”. Until recently, the chronologically old were advised not to engage in vigorous exercise, and to avoid too much excitement. Believing in and acting on such ideas, no wonder seniors become old! Part of life extension involves challenging traditional beliefs about “appropriate” behavior for older persons.
A second factor accounting for the association of stagnation, passivity, and boredom with old age is the biological aging that has always accompanied the passing of the years. Later years sometimes bring weakened muscles, arthritis, vulnerability to infection, memory loss, and confusion. Given these conditions, stagnation comes easily. This second factor cannot be entirely separated from the first. Studies increasingly show that people in their 80s and 90s benefit enormously from a program of exercise that builds up to a strenuous level. Many of us can think of seniors who have never stopped using their brains. Studies now confirm the truth in the maxim “use it or lose it”.
By rejecting the belief that passing years must bring infirmity, it is possibly to greatly reduce most symptoms of aging. Other measures, such as sticking to a high-nutrient, low-calorie diet, and use of supplements perhaps including human growth hormone, can preserve youthful vigor and performance. And we can reasonably expect the biological sciences of the 21st century to understand and overcome the aging process entirely.
The universe offers limitless possibilities. Whether we ever stagnate is up to us. We can choose to bore ourselves at any time, or we can renew our commitment to involvement in life. How could we exhaust things to do and learn? Never will we face a shortage of new activities, new understanding, and new experiences. Some scientists expect that we will come to complete physics, so that one day there will be an end to new discoveries in that field. Even if we do achieve such a consummation of physics, we cannot exhaust the technological applications of physical laws. Technological innovation may continue forever.
Even if, in the remote future, technological innovation should reach an impenetrable barrier, other realms will remain open. We will always have innovative art: music, graphic art, writing, dance, and innumerable forms as yet unconceived. We can experiment with new social forms and invent any number of new games.
In imagining the possible lives of the future, we should not limit ourselves by projecting all our current human limitations and forms of life.
Having lived only a few decades, our perspectives tend to be mired in the present. Taking the long view, we observe continual evolution: In the early universe the principles governing the interaction of matter and energy evolved. Our familiar “laws” of physics developed from different principles in the early universe. Following the evolution of the early universe came the formation of galactic clusters, galaxies, suns, and planets. On our planet, and probably myriads of others through our vast universe, chemical evolution began. The development of self-replicating chemicals and proteins led to biological and genetic evolution. A few million years ago human beings appeared. For many millennia humans changed little, still under the selection mechanisms of genetic evolution. But humans stood out from the rest of the animal kingdom: we had brains with a large neocortex that allowed self-aware thinking. Our higher intelligence let us create technology, at first crude and limited.
The advent of technology sped up the pace of evolutionary development. The formation of planets and galaxies took millions or billions of years. Life didn’t appear on Earth for a billion years. Intelligence took more billions. Technology appeared many thousands of years after conceptual awareness. But once technology appeared, the throttle was pushed down. Social change accelerated, psychology began to change, moral evolution moved forward, and scientific progress took off. The scientific method is little more than three centuries old.
In the second half of the 20th century we reached a new, still swifter stage of evolution. Two developments will lead to radical and rapid transformations: The discovery of the genetic code along with a growing ability to modify it, and the invention of digital computers. Many humans seem to think that they are “it”—that evolution has culminated in them, that no higher form is possible or likely. What misplaced arrogance! Why should we expect an upper limit on new forms of evolution? Why should we think that we’ve reached the end of the road?
All evidence points to a continued acceleration of evolutionary change. Evolution no longer depends on the slow change in our genes. Now we are learning to correct and improve our genetic structure. We are building intelligent machines. We will learn to achieve a synthesis of human and machine, enabling us to surpass the capacities of either alone. This way lies superhuman intelligence, indefinite lifespan, and a powerful ability to choose our physical form, our emotions, even our basic identity. If new forms of evolution and new peaks in our development lie ahead, then stagnation is unnecessary and pessimism foolish.
Hold on! some may cry. All this may be true, but aren’t we eventually doomed? Doesn’t physics, in the form of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, ensure that in the far reaches of the future—an inconceivably distant time from now—the universe will grind to a halt as entropy reaches a peak? The Second Law tells us that any closed system (one in which no energy enters from outside) tends towards disorder and decay. The extropic, evolutionary process that give birth to life on Earth was powered by the Sun. But a few billions years from now, the Sun will have burned all its nuclear fuel and will fade out. This will occur throughout the universe. Much further in the future—so far that the time units have no name, only mathematical notations—protons will decay. Protons form part of the nucleus of atoms. How, it may be asked, can life survive and evolution continue into that enormously distant future?
For most of us, of course, we’re now talking about a future so far off that we may be unconcerned. We can take life as practically unbounded. Some of us, myself included, cannot feel entirely satisfied with such an attitude. I’d like to show, in principle at least, that possibilities can already be seen that may allow literally infinite evolution. This can be done without denying the well-established Second Law and without having to invoke supernatural forces. I suggest that: No physical limit prevents endless growth.
Our conscious selves currently reside in our biological bodies and brains. Scientifically, no fundamental requirement exists for life to be tied to carbon-based biology. Going the carbon route turned out to be the path of least resistance to unconscious nature. Carbon forms a million compounds, allowing it to form part of numerous building blocks of living organisms. It is entirely possible that life has evolved on other planets based on another element, such as silicon. Artificial intelligence researchers and roboticists have already laid the groundwork for new life forms using silicon or optical processors. We may one day migrate the neural functioning that generates our consciousness and personalities onto a different platform.
To a reasonable approximation, we can liken our minds to software running on the hardware of our brains. In principle, we should be able to move out of our current, wet, soft, vulnerable hardware, into new durable, modifiable hardware. Consciousness depends on processing of information rather that on any particular material embodiment. If this is the case, there are at least three serious proposals for making infinitely long life spans possible, despite the dreaded Second Law.
Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson, always a large-scale thinker, suggests that as the universe gradually cools towards absolute zero (assuming the universe will continue to expand), we could experience an infinity of subjective experience by slowing down our thinking processes to use less and less energy. A finite amount of remaining energy could produce an infinite amount of subjective thinking time. Dyson’s proposal depends on the universe having insufficient mass to halt its expansion through gravitational attraction.
This majority view among physicists may turn out wrong. If the universe is massive enough, eventually expansion will cease and it will start to collapse back in on itself. In this scenario, it seems that rather than frigid doom we would meet a fiery apocalypse—a Big Crunch where the universe becomes infinitely hot and dense. Physicist Frank Tipler, best-selling author of The Physics of Immortality, believes such an end can be avoided. He spends hundreds of pages arguing that we (as a vastly advanced intergalactic future race) could control the collapse of the universe so as to extract energy from it that would allow a subjective infinity of existence. The more the universe contracted, the faster our thinking would speed up. We would never run out of time.
A third proposal I’ve seen explained by Michael Price, suggests that we may come to duplicate the forces that originally brought about the Big Bang. We may be able to renew our energy by creating entirely new universes.
We have no grounds for asserting the necessity of limits to life. We can find no impenetrable barrier to endless life. We have no room for any dogma about the inevitability of stagnation. Let us keep our options open. Even at the farthest extremes of time, life may continue without bound.