Frightening and fascinating facets of a deathless world
How will immortality change our morality and even laws? What will life’s purpose be when death is taken out of the equation?
I was thinking of ranting about current affairs for this column again, but the statement of the former Google engineer and prominent futurist, Ray Kurzweil, that humans will achieve immortality in the next seven years made me sit up and take notice. He is not the first one to make this stunning claim. At the Dubai Future Forum last year, Dr Jose Luis Corderio, the futurist, claimed that death will become optional soon. He has written books like The Death of Death, and his assertion is not a fantasy. We are tantalisingly close to immortality. Many scientists say it would soon become an engineering problem rather than a medical one. The scenario may be unthinkable now, but so was flying once upon a time. Nano-robots controlled by artificial intelligence will be capable of repairing and reversing the ageing of our cells at a microscopic level in less than a decade. Other kinds of immortality are being sought using cryogenics, cell engineering, copying cell information and so on.
While we have been busy writing and rewriting history in textbooks and WhatsApp universities, and cooking up fantastic tales about our past, the world is advancing at a blitzkrieg speed. Amazon boss Jeff Bezos has backed Altos Labs, which has raised £200 million for immortality research, and more fund is flowing in from billionaires. Google co-founder Sergey Brin has invested over £600 million in a ‘longevity lab’ called Calico. Paypal founder Peter Thiel has pledged £2 million to SENS Research Foundation. Russian billionaires are also moving in for anti-ageing and immortality research. China is in the game too, and it is heating up.
It would be interesting to see how the new era of immortality will be. Many of us will be alive to enter a deathless world if it happens in the next decade or two. The prospect of immortality is frightening and fascinating at the same time. Where would the resources to feed so many mouths come from? Would immortality extend to other creatures? If nothing dies, how will you eat chicken or beef? Or plants, for that matter? The 18th-century Malayalam poet, Kunjan Nambiar, had described this situation with his characteristic black humour in his poem. Lord Shiva killed Yama, the God of Death, making death impossible for anyone or anything.
There is no space on earth as everyone has his grandparents and their great-grandparents, and so on for thousands of generations living in the same home without even a space to breathe. The earth is overrun by creatures that can’t die. There is nothing to eat, but even starving to death is not an option. Every creature suffers from insatiable, unbearable hunger pangs with no end to the suffering. Are we marching towards that era that Kunjan had so vividly described? Maybe science will find a solution by eliminating the need for food. Who knows, maybe every creature will be able to do photosynthesis soon. Since there is no need to pass on the genes, sex and reproduction will lose relevance. Thus, the difference between living and non-living things will blur.
How will immortality change our morality and even laws? What will life’s purpose be when death is taken out of the equation? Modern life is accelerating at a crazy speed, and everyone is terribly busy doing nothing. What are we going to do with the endless time that stretches infinitely?
I don’t know about you, but a life watching more Tiktok videos and Insta-reels, arguing on social media or WhatsApp groups with perfect strangers don’t appear much fun to me. Nor does fighting with close friends about issues that we can scarcely influence or change or browsing inane television programmes, finding nothing remotely exciting.
Another interesting question is the effect of immortality on religions. Fundamentally, all religions are death cults. In the Yaksha Prashna of Mahabharata, Yaksha asks Yudhishtra which is the biggest wonder. Yudhishtra says every moment many creatures die and go to the abode of kaal (time), but each creature lives as if it is immortal. What could be more wonderful than that? What will happen to life if the fear of death is taken away? Would life cease to be wonderful?
The fear and what happens after death have driven religions since humans invented those. It will render the talks about souls and transmigration of souls in Indian religions or the long wait in the grave for judgement day in the Abrahamic faiths irrelevant when humans become immortal. If there is no death, what is the relevance of heaven or hell or the next life? The immortality of humans may kill God.
Humans have proved more resilient than many religions and gods. All the present religions are hardly a few thousand years old, while modern humans are at least two lakh years old. Human history is a graveyard of extinct religions and gods that lost their relevance when new gods and cults replaced them. A possibility is that the age of immortality may give rise to newer religions and newer gods whose greatest attribute could be their mortality.
Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy