(Infinite) Extension of Human Lifespan – What Would a Buddhist Say?

I have just returned from Rotterdam where the World Congress of Bioethics was held. It is a big event, with almost 1,000 participants coming from all over the world. The names of the participants look almost an international Who’s Who in bioethics, a broad field that comprises philosophy, sociology, law, medicine and many others. Among the many sessions at the congress were quite a few on the ethics of lifespan extension. This is a new phenomenon at the World Congress of Bioethics because aging and lifespan extension issues have not figured this prominently. Perhaps this is a reflection of the time. When the technology is there, or somehow promises to be there, bioethicists will surely take it up and talk about it.

At this World Congress Aubrey de Grey, one of the most famous advocates of technology of lifespan extension presented his view on the topic. De Grey is very well known for his championing the cause, and he would like us to believe that the technology that could potentially extend human lifespan significantly is on the horizon. Not only that, but the kind of technology that could eliminate all causes of aging is no longer a fantasy. Before too long, according to him, we would have the means to eliminate aging from our life, with the result that each of us could, potentially, stop of age, so to speak, and decide whether we can stay at the age of our own choosing. One might choose to stay 24 for a very, very long period of time; or one might choose to remain 36. The bottom line is that, once the biological and pathological causes of aging are eliminated, then human beings can stay young for as long as they like, and there is nothing in principle to hold us back from becoming, say, 1,000 years old or more. De Grey is more of a scientist by training, but he presents his talk to the group of bioethicists by saying that all this is a good thing. We human beings are standing on the threshold of a huge transformation that promises to bring very long lifespan, if not immortality itself, to ourselves.

De Grey giving the talk
De Grey giving the talk

This demands a response from a Buddhist. What de Grey is talking is nothing less than the promise that technology could well realize immortality for us humans! Immortality. No less. Humans have dreamed about immortality for a long time. Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, was well known for his attempt to become immortalized by searching for the elixir of life, but ironically what he thought to be the elixir in fact shorted his life considerably because it contained a very high amount of mercury. People have come to believe that all human life is limited. Death is always upon us. There is no escaping it. But de Grey came all the way from Britain to tell us that we humans can actually become immortal. It is rather hard to believe. Furthermore, when he says that we should all celebrate the likelihood that we will be able to expand our lifespan very considerably, I myself feel a bit uneasy, not only because it runs directly against my Buddhist sentiment, but also because of the confidence that he shows and his total belief that this possibility of very long lifespan extension is upon us.

According to Buddhism, as is well known, all created things undergo birth, decay and dissolution. Every thing has its own time limit. The limit can be long or short, but it is always finite. This is the fate of all created things, human beings included. So when de Grey came in and delivered this talk that humans could in the near future achieve something like the beginning of immortality, this was shocking to say the least. So this demands a response.

I will not talk about the scientific or technical aspect of the technology of lifespan extension here. Let us grant that what de Grey is talking about is true, that technologies will shortly be developed that will eliminate all causes of aging and can rejuvenate our bodies in the same way as certain species of jellyfish do. Let us suppose that humans can really become immortal. Now the question is: What would a Buddhist say to all this? Is it a good, or bad thing?

We have to admit that there are no immortal creatures in Buddhist cosmology. The longest living samsaric creature, Brahmas, live for a very large number of aeons, but still they die. If humans really do become immortal, they would certainly disrupt the system of rebirths and reincarnations. So this situation does have no precedence in Buddhism. If humans do in fact become immortal, we cannot find any case in Buddhist cosmology to use as an example. There is just no immortal creature in all of samsara. So we have to do some interpretation here.

However, one might object that even in de Grey’s most optimistic scenario, people die anyway. Some may die of accidents (being run by a truck – de Grey’s own example) or being murdered, or committing suicide, for example. So at least some of de Grey’s immortal creatures do actually die. But in principle if one avoids these causes one can stay on forever. Is that a good thing? Many participants at the conference believe so. Some say that the increased lfiespan brings them more chance to do whatever they wanted to do and did not have a chance. But I think that if you have an infinite lifespan, all things that you wanted to do because you did not have a chance would then become rather tedious. Things have value to us because they are hard to get, and the fact that we have a limited time in this world shows that we have to make a choice, an irreversible choice. This is important. The fact that our choice is irreversible makes the choice a meaningful one. The choice will stick with us throughout our lifetime. There is no way for us to go back in time and change it. But if our lifespan becomes infinite as de Grey says, no choice of ours will be really irreversible. We would be in the situation of someone with an infinite amount of money to spend who is in the midst of a very large shopping mall with all the goodies that a human being can possibly want. With an infinite amount of space and time, we might delude ourselves thinking that all the choices — all those things that we want but could not get — will be finally available. But the value of things diminish the easier they come by to us. And if infinitely many things are available for us through an infinite amount of time we have, those things will cease to be valuable. They will just look and feel the same. What makes we think that those things we could not get now are valuable is our expection and our desire for them — it is the fact that they are not there for us that makes it desirable. But if everything is there for our taking and picking, then certainly we will lose interest. And I am afraid that this will be our lot should we really become immortal. I would perhaps prefer a life situation where there is a frame, a clear demarcation of the beginning and the end. This somehow gives me a sense of a meaningful life.

There is quite a bit of Buddhism in the idea above, but this is not unique to Buddhism at all. I have more points to discuss, but this is too long already. So those points have to wait.




Last week my son Ken and I went to see a play at the Faculty. This is the first time I took my son to a drama performance. The play was an unusual one in that there was a robot acting as one of the main characters. Yes a real robot.

The title of the play was “Sa-yo-na-ra” which is Japanese for “good-bye” and it is a story of a conversation between a young girl who is suffering from a terminal illness and an android robot. The show was sponsored by the Japan Foundation and there is a news story here. The robot was designed in the play to talk and interact verbally with humans, especially those who suffer from these illnesses. Presumably these patients need someone to talk to and to cheer them up, so a robot was designed for this purpose. (As to the reason why a human being was not needed to talk to the patients, I don’t know. Perhaps a robot is a better talker?)

So the play centers around these two characters. The android, who I learned later was named “Geminoid” because she was purposely built as an exact replica of an existing woman, knows a lot of poetry in her memory and can recite any of them on command. The suffering girl asks the robot to recite some poems and they exchange viewpoints about them. The robot recites a Japanese poem and a German poem and discusses the differences among the two.

The picture you see on your left is the robot. She can blink her eyes, nod and move her lips. But she can’t talk on her own, so when she talks during the play there has to be someone behind the scene to do it, just like in the old days where there was a talker behind a marionette play. However, the android was programmed in such a way that she autonomously moves her head and blink her eyes when she talks. Watching the play, one almost lost the sense that the suffering girl was talking to a robot or a machine. The understanding that the robot displays about the poems she is reciting and the lifelike way she behaves did result in myself suspending the belief for a time that there was a robot on stage. The audience, I think, lost this sense for some time, totally sympathizing with the suffering girl and with the android herself.

This raises a profound question in both philosophy and spirituality. In what sense do we suspend our beliefs in robots and actually become immersed in the play? Even though the voice was from a real human being, the performance of Geminoid, her looks, her eyes and her hand movements and so on, did convince me unconsciously that she was a real human being. When she said to the suffering girl that she was an android and that some of her kind were destroyed by the humans the audience sympathized with her quite a great deal. How could this delicate creature be destroyed in cold blood? We can think of someone destroying, throwing away old fridges and the like, but we do not feel the same way with Geminoid. She is not something to be destroyed because she displays some very human characteristics.

So the question in philosophy is: Does Geminoid have a mind? The answer, of course, is no because Geminoid has been developed specifically for performing on stage. She can’t stand up or walk around. She can only sit and blink her eyes and nod. But are these relevant for having mind? Not really. She cannot talk, but the most important thing is that she can “convince” us in the same way as an actor can convince us that he is Romeo courting Juliet, and so on. This is no small feat. But we can’t help thinking that, if the development for androids such as Geminoid were to go on further and further, there might be a time when a robot and a human become indistinguishable. If that is the case, then should we say that a robot actually does have a right? If the robot or the android (I am using the two terms interchangeably here) were to be totally indistinguishable from humans, then are they really humans? According to Leibniz’s Law, if two things are totally indistinguishable, then they are one and the same. We don’t need to go that far; we can only say that if they are indistinguishable, then they are of one and the same kind. This is more than enough.

But is the android conscious? Well, we still have the problem of being absolutely certain whether someone next to us is conscious or not, or whether they are zombies. Perhaps we can come closer and look closer into Geminoid’s eyes, then we can decide.

As for spirituality, the question is whether Geminoid has a soul, spark of life that is given by God perhaps. Here Buddhism does not have much of a problem. If Geminoid is indistinguishable from us, then she will be subject to the law of karma and other things that befall us humans too. She will have to be born again and it is conceivable that someone will have to be born as an android. This may be either good or bad karmas depending on the quality of life of this or that particular android. But this would mean that the android would have to be “sentient.” He or she needs to be capable of feeling pain and pleasure. But if the androids are totally indistinguishable from us, then they have to be able to feel pain. Then the androids will know what suffering is. And if they have cognitive powers, they can develop themselves so that they can come to understand the underlying nature of things. They can practice meditation and realize finally that all things are empty of their inherent nature. In a word, an android can, eventually, become a Buddha.

A Talk with Sennaya Swamy

Recently I was interviewed by Sennaya Swamy for the reasons behind my writing this blog and other matters. The interview can be found here. As a return gesture Sennaya offered me an opportunity to interview her, which is transcribed below. Her book, The Egyptian Code, is on sale at Amazon.com.

Here is the interview:

How many years of research went into this book?
I have spent almost 10 years of research to come up with the results and analysis to write the book. I must say I have just started my journey and there are many miles to cross to further improve or clarity the concept of the book.
How did you come up with the title?
Choosing the title for the book is really a challenging task for me after completing the book. The title “Egyptian Code: The Secret Code Used by Pharaohs that Can Turn Small Businesses into Empires” has been though for almost a week and then the title is confirmed.
What books have most influenced your life most?
Swami Vivekananda life history has influenced me a lot to change the path of my life

Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
Yes, I travelled all over the country to meet some spiritual individuals to form the shape for the book content.

Tell us your latest news?
Please check my blog http://www.egyptiancode.com/
 Frequently to know about the latest news

Where can we get a copy of the book?
You can purchase a copy of the book at Amazon. Here is the link