I have some fairly strong beliefs on mortality, and how mortality is intimately tied to the human condition. In the pre-dawn decades of advanced biomechanics there have been many advances show the potential to drastically increase one's "natural" lifespan. In light of these developments, my views are something I have pondered as advances surface. My personal beliefs on our species' potential for survival are known to some who read this, but certainly not all.
Humankind is a species divorced from nature at this point in our history. There are a projected 6.4 billion people on this planet. In a non-agrarian state, the majority of the species would die of starvation in very short order. We are grossly overpopulated, in relation to what the planet could offer in terms of food, water, and shelter. I personally feel that many of the "problems" our species faces on a cultural level are tied to this lack of balance and harmony with nature. On the flip side, so many of the truly astounding feats we have accomplished in these individual cultural pens could only have been achieved by an agrarian culture.
What would we be as a global population if we had not turned the farming corner millenia ago? We certainly wouldn't have made it to the moon, but there would be so much less pollution, so many fewer dead zones in the world. The lifespan would be shorter, and the mortality rate higher, but there would have never been death on the scale of anything seen since the post stone age. Technology aside, there wouldn't have been enough people to make the death tolls.
This brings me back to what the human condition is. We are, like any other biological entity, driven by our instinctual desires. To feed, to seek shelter, to procreate. These rudimentary elements have manifested in countless forms over thousands of cultures to get us to the melange we wade through today.
What happens when you eliminate the biological entities which drive instinctual desires?
If you can gain immortality through biomechanics, the need to procreate becomes very limited. If you can sustain life indefinitely, it stands to reason you could probably solve the hunger issue in an equally eloquent manner for this limited population.
There are multiple levels to this.
The conversation I got into was one of sensory input. The amount of brain mechanics that go into suppressing the astounding array of stimuli we are constantly barraged by is truly awesome. What if that stimuli were cut off? If I lose an arm, and it can be replaced with a robotic facsimile of an arm, surely I would take it, as a matter of functionality. However, if this arm was incapable of transmitting nervous stimuli, ultimately, I think the arm would be more of a liability than a help. Pressure, temperature, the joy of running one's hand on another person's exposed skin, the chill that works into your palms as you shape a snowball - all these things would be lost. It would be a part of me, but not, at the same time. The "phantom limb" phenomena suggests that the portion of my brain responsible for dealing with that input is drastically affected by the lack of regular nervous stimuli. The argument, essentially, on my part, is this:
Assuming biotechnology can sustain the biological apparatus which supports the self (assuming the self resides in the brain), but does not provide all the sensory information our bodies do when supporting that self, the self would atrophy, and, eventually, spiral into madness. The only hope to creating biomechanical immortals with this sensory gap would be to introduce them to life and reality in that state, without ever knowing what it is to feel or taste or roll in the grass. However, these entities' status of "human", in my book, would be non-applicable.
Now, assume that you could bridge the sensory gap, and the technology was sophisticated enough to not only support limitless utility, but also the full array of function associated with core biological parts. How does that change what we are? Mortality suddenly has no place in the world. Certainly, gross catastophy and calamity would still claim lives, but for those who had access to this technology, immortality would more-or-less be assured. If the self has a biological basis, and all biological entities can be fabricated, then, obviously, as long as there was at least one person with the knowledge surviving, the entire species could be re-created.
What drives a being who can live forever? Not fear of death, or a relishing of life, knowing it is a fleeting thing.
Western culture is not the most forgiving when it comes to the elderly and infirm. We stick them in homes to rot out of earshot. We cut their stipends, and create environments where people eat cat food so they can afford the drugs that keep their hearts beating, or their blood sugar from killing them. We do not want the constant sad reminders of age around us - we flee. We are a culture of virility, and of the beauty encapsulated in that virility. The reality is, as science progresses, the number of aged individuals will grow, and the time that they hang around will grow. Our reproduction rate shows little to no signs of slowing globally - how is this story going to end, if not on a bad note?
I don't want to sound too pessimistic. There are plenty of families that do not alienate their elderly. There are many cultures wherein the respect of elders is so ingrained that the actions of other cultures would surely be looked upon as madness.
But what happens when the lines cease to exist? When the difference between someone who is 8 and 80 is experiential, not biological? What happens when that difference grows to 80-800?
I have been re-reading Anne Rice's vampire series. While I was drawn to these books as a youth for their darkness and vampiric subject matter, I am re-reading them now from a totally different context. Rice's questioning of, and dealings with the immortal state are very eloquent, despite the somewhat over-pulped themes she delivers them through. I find myself enjoying the books immensely, but not for the sensual bloodsucking reasons I did a decade and a half ago. The ways her immortals cope (or do not cope) with their state is well represented in both a positive and negative light. However, her vampires are all super sensory. They have limited activity cycles, but color, flavor, touch, emotion - all these things are hyperactive in her immortals' lives.
Going back to the conversation which ultimately led to this ramble, how could a self do anything but crumble, immortal and interacting with the world, but divorced from sensing it in anything other than a verbal and auditory manner?
Robert J. Sawyer deals heavily with this issue in his book Calculating God. In it, he suggests that the ultimate endpoint of any highly technologically advanced society would be moving to a "brain in a jar" immortality. You do not need endless physical reality if you can simulate that reality directly into the brain. If a culture embraces this idea, and bend it's collective will towards creating a virtual eden, the next logical step is to make it self-sustaining, and immune to external influence. If both of those things were reasonably achievable, what reasons would you have for NOT embracing the idea? How far would such a society go to ensure that their self-sustaining virtual existence was garunteed to run ad infinitum?
I am not saying that I wouldn't do it, but I am saying that I think, in doing it, I would cease to be a human. The core elements which make me what I am would be stripped away. Naked save for the bones of my thoughts, the blood of my memory, and the flesh of my emotions, I don't know how long I could weather the harsh environment of time. On one level, my ego tells me that I would find limitless ways to challenge, entertain, and enlighten myself. On another very feral level, the ramifications of the certainty that committing to this plan offers no way to escape it completely terrifies me.
One of the most horrific mass-media produced things I have ever witnessed is the 1971 war movie "Johnny's Got His Gun" (on which Metallica based their song, and hit video "One"). The idea of being completely unable to interact with life actively, and, at the same time, unable to exit it is truly horror, to me. I always come back to a fear of this when I consider the "brain in a jar" existence.
There are some philosophical relativists who suggest that we might very well be living a brain in a jar existence without knowing it. There are limited successful arguments against this line of thinking, but one wonders, if it is the case, if perhaps that is where my morbid fear of being trapped in the system stems from. If the karmic cycles of Buddhism and the reincarnative aspects of Hinduism are, in fact, the deep roots of the mythos of our existence, then the idea that everything is simulated reality becomes even more probable, in my opinion. Enlightenment, in that case, is less of a realization of the human condition, and how one fits into it, but, rather, a supreme self-awareness - gaining an understanding of what you truly are in an endless cycle of projected existence.