Humans spend a lot of time contemplating death. In general, though we know we’ll die eventually, we do what we can to prevent it. Medical advances have been increasing life expectancy, and there is good reason to believe that scientists will continue to research cures for the ailments that afflict us. Will those efforts one day lead us to virtual immortality? Would that even be a desirable outcome?
One way we could potentially extend life is through replacing body parts as they wear out. This could either be through building mechanical replacements, turning one into a cyborg. It could also entail cloning human organs and transplanting them. (The film The Island shows entire cloned people being kept in reserve for the instance when the original might need a transplant from them.) Or perhaps the entire body could be cloned, and the memories of the person transferred from the old, worn-out body into the new one. Could such a transfer be possible? If you attempt to transfer a person’s memories and personality, could something be lost in that transfer? Do you think he/she would count as being the same person after undergoing such a procedure?
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Science fiction has also played with the idea of downloading a person’s consciousness into a computer. In the Doctor Who episodes “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead” we see people kept as digital information inside the planet’s data core. The upcoming film Transcendence also deals with downloading someone to cheat death. The question is, is this really cheating death? How do you know that the downloaded consciousness is the same person? What if something is lost in the transfer? Could a human consciousness cope with being taken away from a physical body, or would the shift be so dramatic that it could drive them to madness? Or would they be liberated to become something superior to humans? Would they even count as human beings anymore?
There are so many unknowns that it’s impossible to answer these questions with absolute certainty. I’d like to leave you with one final question though. If you could become immortal, would you want to? Would living forever be a gift, or a burden? (I’m thinking of the Star Trek Voyager episode “Death Wish” as I write this.)