Documenting the Coming Singularity

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Figuring Out How Not to Die

NewPhilosopher - by Patrick Stokes on March 20, 2015

Everyone, according to Simone de Beauvoir, views their own death as an accident, as something alien, contingent, unnecessary. As Tolstoy has the dying Ivan Ilyich ponder, it’s perfectly fitting that everyone dies, but quite outrageous that I die.
It probably says something telling about human beings that the oldest surviving piece of literature is about our longing to overcome death.

The Sumerian poetry cycle known to us as the Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the hero’s grief at the death of his friend Enkidu, and his journey to the ends of the earth to seek the secret of immortality from Utnapishtim, the survivor of a global flood (a sort of Mesopotamian proto-Noah). Along the way he meets a wise woman named Siduri, who tries to make him see the futility of his mission:

“Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find the life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping.”

Needless to say, this idea didn’t stop Gilgamesh from trying, and it hasn’t stopped us either. The good news is, we’ve become pretty good at cheating death of late. In the last few decades, life expectancy at birth in Western nations has been growing by several weeks each year. If that growth rate exceeds 52 weeks per year, we’d reach a state that’s only half-jokingly been called “Actuarial Escape Velocity”: the point at which our lives start growing faster than we can live them.

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