When I was young I was worried about death. I wasn’t worried about my imminent death, rather, I was concerned that the very possibility of death could render life meaningless.
I had this model of being where each moment was brought to life by a purpose, but that each purpose had for it’s target a future state of the self. These interlocking temporal purposes formed a chain of meaning, whereby each moment gained meaning by virtue of looking forward to another moment of being.
If we die at some point in the future, the chain is broken, and so what is the point?
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
My solution to this dilemma was to hope for immortality. As a result, whenever my faith waivered I was faced with an existential crises.
Recently I read an essay about cryonics. The idea of cryonics is that immediately after death, you can have your brain frozen so that when society advances sufficiently you can be reanimated.
Thinking about this possibility doesn’t exactly ease my concerns about death because it raises the question of whether that being that is reanimated is still me? Does securing a 5% chance of being resurrected 1,000 years from now serve the metaphysical purpose of securing an unbroken chain of purpose and identity?
Honestly, I think for me the answer is no. One problem is that I barely even identify with my own self that worried about this unbroken chain of being. When children become conscious they do it gradually. And to begin with, our ego stretches back further than our memory.
Now that I am older I look back and remember things that I don’t really identify much with. I was a different person. If I don’t even identify with my younger self, why should I be so concerned with some futuristic reanimated version of myself?
Our ego creates the illusion that “me” right now is the same as the “me” five minutes from now, but after while the connection grows thin. Under this view, immortality is a farce. I am not going to act on behalf of a being I barely identify with, even if there is an unbroken chain of consciousness between us.
But even as I was losing my desire for immortality, a new hope began to spring in it’s place. It happened when I had a daughter, and I call it “adiabatic immortality”.
First, what is adiabatic? The term adiabatic comes from the Greek term for “impassible.” In physics, an adiabatic process is one that happens without losing energy to the outside in the form of heat. It is often used to refer to gradual processes where energy is not lost.
The adiabatic I am referring to comes from a patent I worked on recently in which a device was designed to transfer light from a fiberoptic capable to a microchip. In this context, an adiabatic waveguide is one where an electromagnetic signal is transferred from one waveguide to another without losing (too much) energy. Interestingly, the waveguides don’t even need to be touching for the energy to be transferred:
Often, the waveguide carrying the signal will be tapered, and if there is another waveguide nearby, the energy will gradually be transferred into the other waveguide.
So what does this mean in the context of immortality? Well, as I was working on this patent I was also in the process of raising a young daughter. In the wee hours of the night when I would wake up to comfort her from some unknown danger that kept her awake, I would lay there feeling her little grip on my hand and imagine that my identity was gradually being transferred from myself onto my daughter.
That is, I began to feel that the future of that other being began to hold more metaphysical significance than the unbroken consciousness carried within my own body. Interestingly, the process of identity transfer wasn’t painful or scary. It felt correct. It felt like my brain was designed to accommodate this process.
There is something very unique about feeling metaphysically linked to another being. The feeling like her existence is essential to prop up my own sense of meaning has helped to form a special bond between us.
In fact, this experience of letting my identity expand to include her has been so powerful that I wonder if truly immortal beings can ever really love anyone in the same way a mortal can.
The conflict between “true immortality” and “adiabatic immortality” was recently portrayed in the Netflix animation Love, Death Robots episode entitled “Pop Squad”. Here’s a review of that film (with spoilers).
I am genuinely interested in technological advances that could eventually lead to much longer lifespans for human beings. But now that I have children, and have transferred many of my hopes and dreams onto them, I feel much more strongly the impact that this might have on our humanity.
I am still afraid of death, but the existential anxiety I used to have has largely disappeared. I have found a way to satisfy my need for immortality, at least for now.