19 January 2008

Quo vadis?

Jim Putnam, over at Thinking Through My Fingers, returns to the question in his previous post: why does humankind explore? But that question in his post titles is not, as he makes clear this second time around, the question which really concerns him: would we still go on exploring if we were immortal?

His respondent Mac, and I, responded to the title question; we both sidestepped (perhaps because it is more difficult) the second one.

There are so many possible clues here that all anyone can do is scratch the surface. What follows is just a very short and limited initial ramble in just one direction plucked from the many possible alternatives.

I personally believe that we would, as individuals, continue to vary greatly. Once we reach maturity there are some who explore the limits of possibility, there are many who do not explore at all, and there are many more who explore on a more modest scale. That has always been so; I doubt that it would be different. As societies, we need all three types in order to be viable (this is the same argument as in my “Running Hot” post of 18th December 2007); but, however moribund a society becomes, there are always explorers within it. As long as the society is expansionist, the explorer individuals play their part in the expansion; once it ceases to be so, they go alone.

So ... would the number of explorers (both extreme and modest) decline, the number of nonexplorers increase, in the face of immortality?

Broadly speaking, most human beings as we currently know them (and, apparently, according to literature, throughout recorded history) tend to fall into five phases of life:

  1. Childhood, when everyone is an explorer.
  2. Adolescence, when most are explorers.
  3. Prime, when the explorers and nonexplorer types emerge and stabilise.
  4. Middle age, when the balance shifts towards nonexplorer.
  5. Later life, when the number of explorers drops off considerably and most are nonexplorers.

Societies tend to be run by those in phases 3 and 4, fuelled by those in phases 2 and 3, so the question becomes: how would immortality affect the mix of those phases within society?

I haven’t read McDevitt’s novel which prompted TTMF's question, and (as a result of my own preferences) am not likely to do so until the paperback appears. Is he talking of greatly extended life span or of truly eternal life?

Extended life is something about which we know a little. In past times, and in some places now, lifespan was/is roughly half of what we accept as normal in developed industrial societies of the late 20th and early 21st centuries CE. (Sometimes less than half: seven hundred years ago, the average inhabitant of the area of Britain where I live had a lifespan of about 30 years; the same is still true in some parts of Africa.) The result of that extension seems to have been roughly proportionate extension of each life phase - childhood is now roughly fifty percent longer, adolescence the same, prime and middle age more than doubled, later life doubled. If that were how a dramatic extension (say, a life span of a thousand years) also went, then I think we can say that the balance of explorers to nonexplorers would stay much the same.

Eternal life is a different thing. How would it work? Would we be frozen forever in our present age, children remaining children for ever, adolescents remaining adolescent, elderly remaining elderly? Or would we all (as present medical and microbiological understanding suggests may be most likely) freeze at prime age? Or would we just extend “later life” forever? Or... The answer affects what we expect the result to be: a perennially prime population would (I am guessing) be much more outwardly exploratory than a perennially middle aged or elderly one, while a perennially adolescent one would probably self destruct.

Would we go on child bearing? If so, then population pressures would force us to either explore and expand or indulge in mass infanticide. If not, then (since there would still be the occasional accident) our numbers would dwindle towards extinction. Perhaps we would manage conception to exactly replace losses? That last option seems likely to encourage conservative (with a small “c”) attitudes and might well mitigate against exploration. Then again, perhaps the boredom of a constrained and conservative life would drive us to greater exploration, seeking the new in the same way that the young of our current (historically very safe and constrained) developed industrial societies seek out extreme sports or antisocial behaviours.

Putting all that aside, for a moment, what of the psychological effects of knowing ourselves to be immortal?

One view (put forward in novels such as Clifford D Simak’s Why call them back from heaven?) has the population becoming excessively and morbidly concerned to avoid all risk. I’m not sure about that. Most of us live through phases 1-3 without any real visceral belief, most of the time, that we will die - in effect, we believe ourselves immortal - and those are the years of maximum exploratory tendency. I am well and truly into middle age (phase 4), have seen a depressingly extensive amount of death in various forms at first hand, have a clear intellectual knowledge that my death is inevitable, and have started to plan for that fact ... but there is still a very real sense in which I don’t, psychologically, accept the reality that I will die. So, would immortality simply be more of that same, with our psychological outlook unchanged? I don’t know, but it seems to me likely - in which case, “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose”.

In one of Iain M Banks’s “culture” novels (I forget, off hand, which one), there is a scene in which a man decides, after several centuries, that he has had enough of extended (not) life, that he has seen as many new things as he wants to see, and voluntarily ends his life. That seems to me a very likely human response to sufficiently extended longevity ... but perhaps I am only applying the assumptions of my own bubble.

All of this, of course, assumes biological immortality ... there are many other intellectually conceivable forms of immortality from which different lines of speculation flow.

Ultimately, if asked to put my money on one bet, I would have to fall back on the same answer which I gave originally: "humans are animals, and all animals have built into them the hard wired survival need to know and understand their environment", and therefore our drive to explore would (I am guessing) continue unabated.

There you go, Jim ... a tiny pinprick in a huge subject, amounting to: "I don't know"!

1. Clifford D Simak, Why call them back from heaven? 1967, Victor Gollancz: London.

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