JB: We are now in a place where it’s possible to glimpse a purpose to civilization as a whole, which is to end death. But the paradox is that in doing so, civilization as we know it ends, and something new comes out of it that has never been before. How can we make people less resistant to this?
MM: That’s a huge problem. Many people’s first reaction is still kind of an immune reaction: `My brain hurts if you talk about that because it would change too much, so don’t bother me with it, it must be impossible.’ To me, there is kind of a parallel with the way people responded to abolishing slavery. People said, `Of course we should have slaves. One group has always controlled and enslaved another. And who would do this work if we didn’t have slaves to do it, and the slaves would be unhappy because they like to be told what to do and they’re not responsible.’ But obviously, all of that changed quite drastically. So it’s true, a lot of things will change, and people find that scary, but I tend to think they will change for the better.
JB: So there’s potentially a positive prospect for living without limitation in that unknown future that you’re talking about?
MM: Physical immortality, if you want to use that term, or indefinite lifespan, doesn’t violate any constraints of nature as far as we know. It’s just a matter of understanding human biology and fixing it. Certain animals live a lot longer than others. There are some organisms that don’t really die at all, so why is it that we age and die? Why do we have to accept these limitations on the human condition? There’s something wrong with the human condition as we have inherited it, so maybe we need to take charge of it and do something about that. Just because we have always had that and it is being called “natural” does not make it good. Lots of natural things are very bad for us.
The huge majority of the population accepts the deathist attitude that death is good and natural and we should just go with it, which to me is one huge rationalization of something that is not acceptable.
JB: Are the intellectual and the immortal better able to communicate now than in the past?
MM: I think there’s very much a growing place for discussing the idea of immortality/indefinite life. It’s interesting that George W. Bush formed a council of bioethics and they wrote this long report, which was a very serious investigation into the idea that death might be defeated in the near future. They were very much against it. They didn’t want that to happen. But they were taking it seriously, and that’s different from the way it was in the past.
JB:It’s amazing how many objections people come up with to not dying. One we hear often is that it would be boring!
MM: I don’t understand how people can say that indefinite life would be boring, unless they’re already bored by life. I can’t imagine getting bored. I can sit down right now and think of enough things that I would like to do right now that would take me centuries to explore, all the different areas of knowledge, different activities and fun, places to visit, new relationships.
This idea of boredom and immortality/indefinite lifespan has been reinforced by our culture over and over. I used to teach philosophy of religion and had Catholic students. Many of them would say that they didn’t want to be physically immortal because they would be bored, yet they were quite happy with the idea that they would die and go to heaven forever. I would ask them, why are you so sure it’s going to be great there, and they had no answer. Are you going to be sitting on a cloud playing a harp forever? That sounds pretty boring.
JB: It comes back to change doesn’t it? That physical immortality or unlimited lifespan calls for ongoing change and how could that possibly be boring?
MM: People tend to have a very static view of the self. For most of history, people lived in a certain village, had one religion, one set of relatives, one role in life, the farmer or the chief or whatever and they never changed. Now we’re already seeing a lot more change. You can change careers, where you live, your partners. But we still tend to get stuck in the mode of this is who I am and project that indefinitely forward, which is the problem. You are the process of change and exploration and learning, and by taking that perspective explicitly I think you are more likely to go with the flow rather than to be a stick-in-the-mud.
The new game is an open-ended one. It’s got rules that are constantly rewritten to make life more fun and interesting. It’s a game with endless horizons. It’s one where we question everything and we decide how we want the world to be. We reconstruct it more and more as we get smarter and wiser and have more powerful technology. It’s a much more fun game.