Fairy tale immortality, whereby you drink an elixir and there, you’re indestructible, is a fool’s errand. It comes from a simplistic and sometimes anthropomorphic view of death: picturing it as a man who takes souls, who you can somehow evade and thus live forever, or as the lack of a vital force that can be taken or replenished. Death is not a specific thing, it’s the cessation of life, whichever way it happens, and so there are more ways to be dead than there are ways to be alive. It’s a consequence of the laws of thermodynamics: a system has more ways to be disorganized than ways to be organized. The amount of disorganization or chaos within a system is directly correlated with a physical quantity called entropy. Low entropy means high level of organization, whereas high entropy means the opposite.
And so maintaining yourself alive is about keeping disorder from creeping up into your system. And by extension, becoming immortal, in more realistic and practical terms, would mean having (the ability) to fight the countless agents of disorder constantly, thereby gaining some time (a few more years or decades, or more perhaps) until the next big entropy increasing agent comes in, while of course ensuring that simpler and quicker ones don’t take you by surprise. It’s also about anticipating those death agents in advance so their effect can be postponed or nullified.
We all fight entropy on a daily basis. When you eat food, you are giving your system the necessary building blocks to renew its components, repair damage, and perform other tasks to keep your entropy at a low level. When you take medications for some disease, you are providing your body with materials to destroy a foreign organism, that could wreak havoc in the structure of your system (and thus increase its entropy). When you look left and right before crossing a street, you are trying to prevent an external impact, strong enough to damage your system and thus, once again, increase your entropy. Nearly every action we perform is, directly or indirectly, about maintaining our entropy as low as possible.
Why then, despite this humongous effort exerted by all living organisms, humans included, to maintain their entropy very low, do they end up dying, i.e. reaching a state of high entropy? Well, our bodies are well equipped to maintain themselves, but they’re not perfect. They are only good enough to allow us to live for some time and have offspring, passing on our genes to them, and then once our children have grown enough to have their own offspring, as far as nature is concerned, we become obsolete. There are people of course who live long enough to see their grand-grand-children, or even their grand-grand-grand-children, but those are exceptions. In any case, if we don’t succumb earlier, we all grow old and eventually die. There are however exceptions to this rule in nature, most notably the hydra. These creatures are biologically immortal, as they can stay young indefinitely without ever growing old, and may die only due to a trauma or a disease. Scientists are currently studying these organisms to understand their ability, and possibly replicate it to prevent aging in humans.
Aging itself is conducive to an overall increase in entropy. At the cellular level, copying errors multiply, many processes are not as efficient as they used to be, leading to a deterioration of functions and tissues. We are thus easily exposed to a variety of diseases like cancers, strokes, dementia, etc. At some point, one or more of our vital systems is irreversibly damaged, leading to a sudden interruption of the maintenance systems in our bodies, and so entropy, having nothing to keep it in check anymore, shoots upwards abruptly. But is this process truly irreversible? Death after all has been constantly redefined, all through human history, depending on our level of knowledge and technological ability. In fact, the second law of thermodynamics, “the law of entropy”, implies that the natural process of entropy increase in a system can be reversed, if the right amount of energy and matter is introduced in the right way to recreate the former state of that system, or one that is close to it. “Reversing aging” and “reversing death” from a physical standpoint are therefore totally feasible, or at least they do not contradict any physical laws that we know of, as long as we have a sufficient amount of energy to reposition every molecule in the system where it was before the damage started.
Right now of course we don’t know how to cure cellular damage that causes aging and other age-related diseases, although much progress has been made in that department recently. But theoretically, since the human body is essentially a machine, albeit a very complex one, it’s possible to repair any damage by intervening in the processes and tweaking them, or simply by replacing the damaged tissues with new ones.
Cancer is now one of the biggest challenges we’re facing. But once cancer becomes curable or preventable in whichever form, we will certainly run into other agents of death eventually. We may speculate that if you could live to 300, your brain would hit its memory capacity limit, and you’d be unable to remember any further information (or you would start forgetting older vital ones). Studies have shown that Alzheimer’s cases have been climbing up in the last few years, and will continue to do so if no breakthroughs are made. So maybe after the cancer stage comes the generalized Alzheimer’s stage. It’s like playing a video game, except there’s no final level where you’d win against the final boss and save the princess. We’ll always run into more difficult problems to solve, and once they are solved, there will be even more difficult ones awaiting us still. Even the matter that makes us up and everything else around us has an expiry date. Protons for example have an estimated life of 1034 years, 1 followed by 34 zeros.
The reason why curing aging is such a crucial issue, is that aging itself,according to some studies, is a major factor in the aforementioned maladies; and understanding aging, itself a process of degeneration, progressive damage, and error accumulation may shed light on such diseases. Curing aging on its own would therefore eliminate many potential cases of cancer or Alzheimer’s, just as an example, with the obvious bonus of adding many more years to our healthy lifespan.
One of the main objectives of the longevity movement is to find cures to aging symptoms, and to reverse the aging process itself. In a post-aging era people would more likely succumb to faster ways of death, involving strong physical impacts for instance, rather than slow and painful ones, and would also have the choice to die in their own dignified way once they decide they no longer want to live. And of course those among us who still want to live longer, in order to have more experiences or because they have a life mission they would like to fulfill, would be able to do so.
There are many reasons why each one of us may desire to live multiple lifetimes or even indefinitely. The number of possible experiences for an individual human are almost infinite, and the same could be said of our individual creative potential. And when we stop restricting our imagination and our possibilities, we find many practical justifications for life extension as well.
Let us think of our existence beyond our daily routines, beyond the few places that we frequently visit, and the few experiences that we have made and will ever make as non-extended non-augmented humans. The realization of how little of the world we experience can make us feel small, but it should also motivate us to try to become bigger. Let us even think beyond our blue planet, and ponder how little we have explored so far in our own Solar System, and how vast the expanse that remains to be explored is. Traversing the unimaginably huge distances that separate planets, star systems and galaxies, limited by the speed of light, is an endeavor that will require several lifetimes if not geological time scales.
Compared to this vastness, we human beings are quite helpless, limited, and fragile. Life extension is one way we can expand our scope, by giving more time to all of us, and especially the restless explorers whose appetite for more knowledge, more experiences, and more accomplishments, cannot be satiated by the scantily protracted amount of time, frugally bestowed upon us by Mother Nature.