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.
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.