All the Flavors of Immortality

(This was originally written in 2002. I’m reposting it here as part of decommissioning my old website, and because I might want to refer to it later.)

Written March 14, 2002.
Major revisions October 10, 2002 suggested by Frink.

As an exercise, I thought I would try to enumerate all the different classes of immortality I have heard or read about, and give some discussion about the tradeoffs inherent in each and in the idea of immortality itself.

Some of these are real, some are fictional, and some are on the move from fiction to reality thanks to medical advances. I hope I don’t need to point out which are which.

Everyday Immortality

Immortality through Genetics

If your branch of your family tree doesn’t dead-end, you have this kind of immortality. Your genetic code, which defines characteristics of your body and health, will live on in your progeny, albeit in slightly altered forms. Unfortunately, your DNA doesn’t define your persona and after a few generations the part of it that is you will be severely diluted.

Another kind of genetic immortality would be having a sample of your DNA permanently recorded so that you could be cloned in the future. Sadly, as with your offspring, your clone is not you.

Immortality through Deeds

This is the romantic kind of immortality where you live on in the minds of others. Adults often try to sell this kind to kids when awkward questions about death come up. It can be as simple as being remembered fondly by family members or hallucinated by crazies. It can be as grand as being named a world hero for having accomplished some great work, and having numerous books and films made about you. The problem is that, as with DNA, memories get diluted over time. Even if your name is well-known enough to survive as part of world history, people will care less as time moves on, and you’re still vulnerable to being erased by some sort of global cataclysm. We remember the Caesars, but we’ve forgotten who invented fire and the wheel since they lived in a time when the worldwide disaster of not-having-a-coherent-written-history was going on.


Sometimes when people die, they come back to life a short time later as zombies. Possible causes of this are many and varied – it can be the result of radiation from space, the summons of a wizard or deity, general cursedness etc.

There are a lot of drawbacks to being a zombie. Zombies stink, have horrible skin conditions, shamble everywhere, moan a lot, and feed upon the brains of the living. That really cuts down on your enjoyment of immortality. Your social life will be restricted to other zombies, your hopes of an athletic career will be dashed, and some people simply don’t enjoy cracking skulls open to feast upon the goo inside.

Furthermore, not all zombies have the ability to pull their bodies back together when smashed by zombie-haters (zombies are subject to much hatred from jealous non-zombies), which means that once your skeleton is broken into little bitty pieces, you have to spend eternity in one place. Very boring, and probably painful too.

This is Your Brain on Ice

There has been a lot of interest in cryonic preservation lately. It was in the news a fair bit in 2002 because of some baseball player who got frozen. Surprisingly, there are many people who object to allowing others to have themselves frozen. When examined, most of their arguments turn out to be hollow. The best debates arise out of the legal and ethical issues surrounding your existence after being frozen – what are your rights on ice, and what does the future owe you?

Cryo is currently the best chance we have of becoming immortal. There are lots of risks; it relies on keeping you frozen solid long enough for medical science to advance sufficiently to not only reverse the freezing damage but also fix whatever killed you and, if you only had your head frozen, grow you a new body. It’s impossible to estimate the probability that you’ll be awakened after having died and been frozen, but no matter how small it is, it’s still bigger than the chance of being revived after being buried or cremated. And even if being frozen turns out to be completely hopeless, you’re no worse off than you would be if you weren’t frozen.

Spiritual Immortality

There are many and varied cults in the world whose doctrines insist that death is merely a transition, and that afterwards our minds are freed from our bodies and either go on to another world, or are reincarnated into new bodies. Some believe that the other world involves some sort of eternal punishment or reward for deeds done while living, which sounds extremely boring.

Of course, nobody has found a single shred of evidence that these beliefs may be true, and some of them sound downright scary; for instance belief in reincarnation implies that the reincarnated person loses their memory and identity when reborn (since nobody can reliably recall a past life), and that sounds more like permanent death of the individual than immortality.

Immortality through Not Dying

A major shortcoming of the above listed forms of immortality is that they all involve dying. Besides seemingly violating the very definition of the word immortality, this is a big problem because if you want to be immortal, you probably don’t want to have to die to accomplish it. Too risky.

Tour the Fourth Dimension via Stasis

If you’re worried about dying, you can always stick yourself in some sort of time-stopping machine. You could do this in the hope that the future will have a cure for death ready for you when you step out, or you could just use it to spread your lifetime out over a longer range of real time in order to see what the future has in store.

The biggest problem with this plan is the risk that someone will mess with your preservation apparatus and kill you in your sleep. A certain amount of hedging can be done to prevent that, but you will still be at the mercy of environmental disasters.

Slow Aging with Relativity

That funny-looking man with the frizzy hair told us that as you move faster and faster, time slows down for you relative to the rest of the universe. The effect becomes most pronounced when you approach the speed of light.

This is better than the stasis idea because you can remain conscious and somewhat in touch with what’s going on in the universe. At a minimum, you can watch the stars move and get a time-lapse view of any nearby macro-engineering projects.

There are slight technical difficulties here; to avoid hitting something, you pretty much need to do this in space, which means you need a spacecraft capable of sustaining you for however long you intend to employ relativistic time dilation. Furthermore, it takes a hell of a lot of energy to get up near light speed, especially if you want to do so within your mortal lifetime. Life extension via relativistic effects is therefore outside most peoples’ budget – at least for the time being.

Medical Immortality

Body Swapping

Medical science has already made great strides in using organ transplants and other treatments to extend life. Cloning technology is being born right now. It is not hard to imagine having a fresh copy of your body cloned every few decades, and having your brain transplanted into it.

Brain deterioration would still be a problem, but progress is being made in treating that too. The major risk here is that your surrounding society may collapse and lose the ability to clone bodies for you. It’s safer for an immortal to be self-sufficient.

Instead of having the same old brain transplanted into a cloned body, sufficiently advanced technology could copy your neural wiring into a cloned brain. This raises the same identity questions as uploading and matter transporters.


Another route to medical immortality lies in finding out why aging happens, and finding a cure for it and for the various types of deterioration that afflict the elderly. In the literature this is often posited to take the final form of a drug, treatment or dietary supplement that prevents one from dying of natural causes. It does not necessarily prevent virulent disease or death from preventable poor health (like extreme obesity or malnutrition). Again, there may be a self-sufficiency problem here.

A related idea is that of curing the disease called old age. We’re giant machines for helping genes make more genes, and our bodies are designed to have a reproductive peak. Once we’re no longer fit for reproduction, our genes could care less about us and everything starts falling apart. With a sufficient understanding of how genetic molecules work, we could reprogram them to make the priority keeping the organism alive and healthy instead of simply reproducible.


Some people find the ideas of organ transplantation and cloning disturbing. Fortunately for them there are a wide range of mechanical body part replacements available. When something wears out, replace it with a machine. The logical end result is a machine with a human brain controlling it directly.

The problems of brain deterioration must still be faced, of course, unless you also replace it with a better thinking device. Furthermore, some current mechanical organ replacements are quite crude and cumbersome. You have to ensure your machine parts are well-maintained and receive enough power, or else you run the risk of becoming a statue.

There are a lot of potential advantages too, including the ability to interface digitally with computers, enhanced strength and speed, and resistance to hostile environments.

Immortality through Transformation

If humans can’t be immortal, maybe they can be changed into something that can.


For those of you born in the last five seconds, vampires are people who drink the blood of others in order to stay alive and young. Various additional powers are often attributed to vampires, along with some curious weaknesses.

The origin of vampirism is unknown, but the condition is believed to be a disease transmitted by bodily fluids. Vampires can transform humans into vampires by administering a non-fatal bite. This sometimes happens by accident when a vampire fails to drain enough blood to kill the victim.

The advantages and disadvantages of being a vampire are open to debate. There is a huge amount of variation in the powers and weaknesses ascribed to vampires.

Example powers include flight, limited invulnerability, superhuman strength and speed, limited shape-changing ability, uncommon attractiveness, ability to teleport via shadows or doorways, ability to mentally control animals or demons, and automatic ownership of outrageous castles in European mountain ranges.

Example weaknesses include weakness in the presence of garlic or religious symbols, death upon exposure to sunlight, ability to enter homes only when invited, extreme vulnerability to slivers, a requirement to sleep in a coffin, and a propensity for being followed around by angry mobs of peasants carrying torches and pitchforks.


Some people believe that humanity is just the larval stage of some kind of non-corporeal being. Others believe that when we die, our minds are freed to roam the universe. There are lots of variations on these themes, most of which end up with the mortal subject being transformed into some sort of pretty energy creature able to go where it wills.

Unfortunately there is no supporting evidence for such claims, and indeed we have plenty of reason to believe that a pure-energy life-form is physically impossible.

Another kind of transcendence involves becoming something godlike yet still rooted in matter. This can range all the way from unlocking the hidden secrets of the human brain and making full use of it, to being artificially “evolved” into a more advanced kind of life form, to uploading (see below) and expanding your consciousness to fill all available computing resources. Of course if you’re still matter you can still be destroyed, but presumably if you’re something much better than human you’ll also be better at avoiding danger.


With computing power growing at a fantastic rate, it is becoming practical to digitally simulate the behavior of the neurons that make us think. We’re still a long, long way from being able to simulate a human brain in any practical way, but it could happen. Combine that with advances in medical scanning technology, and hopefully a breakthrough in understanding how neurons work together to produce thought and memory and consciousness, and you have an obvious conclusion: Why not transcribe our brains into computers?

The potential advantages are mind-boggling. Immortality. Making extra backups of your mind just in case. Cheap space travel and exploration. Cheap travel anywhere there’s a network. Ability to multi-process; create a second copy of yourself to handle annoying people or tackle dangerous jobs. High-speed thought. Ability to slow thought to wait out boring events. Increased memory capacity and accuracy. Seamless interaction with computers. Enhanced communication abilities.

Along with this come heavy philosophical questions. If you upload yourself into a computer, is it still you, or have you died? Is the you in the computer really conscious and sentient, or is it just a flawless simulation? Does it even matter? Do you have continuity of consciousness? If the meat version of you remains alive, which one is legally a person or are both? Does this count as reproduction? Similar questions also apply to brain modifications.

Magical Means

Assuming the existence of magic, there are many and varied means to use it to keep oneself alive. Magic is often portrayed as having a Do-What-I-Mean interface, which is a big plus because it reduces the likelihood that you will accidentally curse yourself.

The wise magic-user will be cautious and flexible. Start with the basics, like protection from all sorts of harm (violence, poison, disease), then add self-regenerating health and vigor, create a set of quick-escapes from especially dangerous scenarios, and take steps to ensure that you will always be able to revise, strengthen or add to these spells in the future. Also, avoid placing trust in others to procure your survival supplies, because forever is plenty of opportunity for your side-kicks to change their minds and betray you.

For non-spellcasters, wish-granting genies and deals with demons are popular ways to gain magical immortality. Such entities tend to be capricious and overly literal in their interpretation of wishes, and they have good lawyers. If one is not exceedingly precise in the wording of a wish, it can become a curse. For example, wishing simply for eternal life might not save you from the ravages of disease and decay. You could end up an immortal mind trapped forever in a useless, rotten body. Not fun.

Of course, one can also become immortal as the result of a curse placed upon oneself by an enemy. This is often done to earthy characters who value their friends and family, because it subjects them to the torture of watching all their loved ones grow old and die, and deprives them of the chance of reaching whatever afterlife they might believe in. In this case, all you can do is make the most of it. No sense being depressed for all eternity.

Immortal Plus

Most of the previously mentioned forms of undying immortality only offer safety from common forms of death like old age and disease, but there are many ways to die. Here are some additional factors you might want to consider.

Permanence. Do you want to be absolutely immortal, or do you want the option of ending your own life if you get bored? Can you trust yourself to make a sound judgement of when to end it? A thousand years of depression might make it tempting, but a million years of bliss could be right around the corner.

Food. Do you want to have to continue eating? Consider how much food you’ll need to eat over the next 15 billion years. Granted it doesn’t take much more than a large, well-maintained garden to feed one person, and a garden is a renewable food source. Well, renewable barring extinction of the light source or mutation of the plants into something inedible and no doubt intent on the extermination of all animals. An immortal may no longer be subject to the forces of evolution, but his food supply still is.

However, if you want to take long trips you have to ensure food will be available, or lug some with you. And what about bad food? If you’re the adventurous type, you’ll probably want to sample the local delicacies wherever you go, but that almost guarantees you’ll be poisoned at some point. It would be really embarrassing to keel over at the local fast food joint while sharing your accumulated wisdom with the natives.

Invulnerability. No matter how much of a hermit you are, if you live forever you’re bound to get into altercations ranging from fisticuffs to interstellar wars. Do you want protection from physical harm? Probably, but what kind? Being completely impervious to harm will make you cocky and more likely to endanger those around you, while at the same time boring you in the long run. Suffering an injury can be a positive personal growth experience, so maybe what you want is something along the lines of protection from death combined with total body regeneration ability.

Of course, even the ability to completely regenerate your body can cause problems. What if someone tosses you into a star? You’ll be floating there constantly growing new flesh only to have it instantly burned to a crisp. Mmmm… bacon… where was I? Oh yes, this little scenario leads to:

Protection from traps. Some people resent immortals and will set nasty traps for them. There is also always the risk of doing something stupid and trapping yourself. This could be really bad, because if you’re immortal and fall into an inescapable trap, you’re going to be really bored for a really long time. Probably the most practical way to avoid this problem is to also have the ability to teleport yourself arbitrarily.

Even so, escaping traps is a major problem for invulnerable types. As Frink pointed out to me after reading the first version of this article, what if someone tosses you into a singularity? It would really suck to be able to survive that because it’s pretty far-fetched to imagine a way of getting out again. You’d pretty much have to hope that Hawking was right and wait for the thing to evaporate.

Travel ability. Not a major problem really, but worth thinking about. You will eventually get bored of whatever planet you start on, and will want to explore other worlds. How will you get there?

Common Misconceptions about Immortality

It’s Boring.

Could very well be, if mishandled. Fortunately humans are amazingly good at finding ways to rationalize remaining alive in bad situations. If it gets too boring, you can make it more interesting by playing games with yourself, like deliberately forgetting things, or becoming an investigator or a collector of the rarest of the rare. If you’re bored forever, you’re doing something wrong.

Nobody Wants to Live Forever!

Wrong. I do. I want to see what happens next. Then what happens after that, and so on. I want to be able to travel the universe and see the sights. I want to see how the universe ends. As I said to Frink once, I’d like to be able to point at a distant galaxy and say, “I think I’ll go see who lives there, but I’ll take my time and see all the sights along the way,” and be able to actually do it.

It’s Selfish.

Damn right it is; nothing wrong with that. However, an immortal can also be of enormous benefit as a carrier of knowledge. Having a friendly immortal on your planet is a great safeguard against long-term dark ages; that person can help civilization rebuild quickly after large-scale disasters.

Why Deny Yourself Your Eternal Reward?

There is no evidence to support the belief in an afterlife, therefore it is logical to put off death as long as possible to maximize enjoyment of life. If there is an afterlife, it will still be there for you when you get tired of immortality.

It can also be argued that dying is irresponsible because it denies the benefit of your future works to your society. You might think to counter-argue that a given immortal might be more of a burden than a benefit to society, but that argument breaks down when you talk about immortality because immortality practically guarantees that the person will change many times over, and at some point will be greatly productive.

I would go so far as to suggest that even believing in an afterlife is socially irresponsible, because it cheapens the lives of others. Life becomes more precious if you believe that death is The End.

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