Wayne Holland: Irrational Universe

Immortality

June 10, 2004

 

The subject of immortality is one of my all-time favorite distractions. If ever the opportunity presents itself, I never hesitate to rant on its utter impossibility.

One analogy for effectively explaining the unlikelihood of an endless life may be borrowed from one of those popular fireplace logs, the kind that are manufactured to burn for a certain number of hours (usually three or four) depending on their size.

Could we reasonably expect one of them to burn for, say, six hours, when the package clearly indicates three? If the log is made to burn for three hours, then that is pretty much what it is going to do. (If anything, it might burn for less.)

The comparison of our life spans with a fireplace log is an apt one, and supremely easy to relate to. But instead of flaming for three or four hours, the biochemical fires that we think of as our lives are usually good for seventy or eighty years. And in the same way that we would not expect a three-hour log to burn for six hours, we cannot expect our personal fires to burn for a longer period of time than they are made to burn.

And our biochemical fires are most assuredly designed to burn for a finite number of years, whether we like it or not. If we had the genetic expertise, we could scan a sample of our DNA and, barring accidents or anything fluky, make a fairly accurate determination of how long our "log" might be expected to burn. We are not going to get a hundred-year (let alone an infinite) fire from a seventy-year log. It is just that simple.

Now, try to imagine an endless fire, because that is basically what we are talking about when we are speaking of immortality, a fire that is never quenched.

The sun, for example, is a pretty big fire, about 10-billion-years big (and already half gone). But as big as 10-billion might be, it is still not endless. The last time I checked, ten-billion was a finite number. It looks like this:

10,000,000,000

Anyone who has had any experience with making a fire is well aware that it has to be fed. Consequently, for a fire to burn endlessly it would have to be fed endlessly, which is pretty much impossible, because the "feeder" would himself have to be fed (so that he could maintain the energy that would enable him to feed the fire), also endlessly, and so on. The whole system would require one endlessness on top of another. In other words, it is basically unsustainable. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Immortality is impossible.

One of the things that gets me going on my immortality rant is this cryogenic business. We hear about it from time to time. Someone has his head frozen in the hope that science will someday figure out the secret to eternal life.

If we wish to acquire something that never ends (immortality), we have to invest something that never ends.

But the biggest problem by far that we encounter when we take a hard and honest look at the subject of immortality is its sheer exclusivity. There can only be ONE immortal being. There couldn't possibly be a host of gods as the Greeks imagined.

To understand why this is so, we need but consider carefully the word "eternal." What does it mean? Essentially no beginning and no end. This itself suggests that it is everywhere, omnipresent. We accept it as an inviolable law that two things cannot occupy the same space at the same time. If that is indeed the case, then it is not at all difficult to see that only one thing (perhaps I should say ONE THING) could be eternal, and being eternal is just another way of saying immortal.

When I was in college, pursuing a major in Biblical Studies, I came up with a question one day that caused my professors a bit of consternation. Whenever the subject of God's omnipresence came up (which was often), I eagerly responded with, "If God is everywhere, then where are we?"

Not one of them was able to give me a suitable answer.

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