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January 25, 2009

Achieving Immortality

The Dalai Lama

Share your knowledge. It's a way to achieve immortality.

 -- Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama


Good Morning,

Brian Glanz and Mohini Glanz

CompassionRise has often discussed the pursuit of happiness; happiness is love and desire for life. We have also discussed the sustainability of the self, both for our daily lives and while anticipating human immortality.

There is a plain logic to being immortal by sharing knowledge. Our mortality is physical; people generally die before they want to, before they are mentally exhausted, and because their bodies have in some way failed. We are physically fragile, whatever the strength of our will and the advance of our medicine.

It is unlikely any amount of medical science and technology could keep us alive forever as we are; at some point, we would need to get out of our bodies. By the time technology could maintain an eternal human body, it is likely other, preferable options would exist, like a machine mind with superior memory or a machine body capable of flying. We can imagine many technical innovations which seem more likely than mastering the medicine of an eternal body.

Who are we? A few simple, if poetic answers: we are what we create, what we uniquely observe or make, what we communicate, and we are our relationships with others. Who we are, as such, is in large measure defined by what is outside of our bodies, opposite to how we more casually think of ourselves.

Thinking the Dalai Lama's words through as we have, he makes a profound but simple sense: "Share your knowledge. It's a way to achieve immortality."

CompassionRise has used the term "extrasomatic" in several articles, each time linking to outside definitions because the term itself is not common. "Soma" in both Latin and Greek means "body," and so literally, "extrasomatic" is "out of body."

The extrasoma is fundamental to everything humanity has accomplished, and central to self and social improvement. In the article "Ignorance and Real Peace" we wrote:  

Throughout civil human history, from early use of scales and standards in transactions and markets to our modern age of computing, we have used factual, extrasomatic reference and machines to drain the swamps within and among humanity.

In "Community and Inner Strength" we wrote: 

If CompassionRise appeals to a higher power, then that higher power is comprised of our community, our ability, and our potential. Our higher power is not only the gathered, living community of people, but also our collected extrasomatic knowledge, our technology, and our imagination of what is possible. One thousand of us together are not merely one thousand times the potential of one of us; one thousand of us are enough, in time, to remake all we have accomplished. History has proven that what we can dream, we can do.

Whether through reincarnation, resurrection, becoming a god, or ascending to heaven or descending to hell, immortality is the central prediction and promise of every religion. Immortality is almost universally presumed. Whether you believe in the one, true religion, the stories go, will determine whether you get a preferred type of immortality. Nonreligious people who variously call themselves humanists, secularists, naturalists, freethinkers, atheists, brights, and otherwise, are distinct from religious believers in presuming total mortality with the death of our bodies. The promise of immortality, for them, is a scientific or technological possibility, not promised by gods in return for devotion, but made by people. Immortality will not require belief; getting to it and living it well, though, will require a lot of compassion.

CompassionRise has previously explored the philosophical connection between science and compassion, as in "Science and Humility," and compassion as a universal spirituality, as in "A New Spirituality." Compassion is not only a matter of ethics. With its principles and methods, compassion is also a means to a more civil society, a longer and better lived life, and other better ends. Sharing knowledge is an immediate means to immortality for parts of ourselves, and we are achieving greater means of creating, recording, and communicating on a literally daily basis. There are other, more direct means of total immortality however, and we are not unimaginably far from them.

Compassion should not only guide our individual actions, and the extrasoma is not only defined for ourselves as individuals. For all of humanity, a parallel is true -- the more we create, record, communicate and share, the more we collectively know outside the frailty of individual minds and bodies. As other people, contemporary and descendant, can access our shared knowledge, the greater will be humanity's collective chance of surviving and the better our lives will be along the way.

The extrasoma is not only a machine, not only a book, not only a database. It is every act of communication, every export of what we observe, think, and feel. The extrasoma can be a spoken or written word, a look or a smile, or a constructed object, or a work of art.

For most of human history, the main extrasoma was oral tradition. With story telling and spoken language generally, we taught and learned the history of our ancestors, knowledge we needed to survive practically, and natural philosophy to explain our world and ourselves. The earliest writings we have available were not new stories. In them and in the stories we tell today we hear the echoes of millennia of spoken words. The method of oral tradition is beloved but it is barely extrasomatic -- it introduces and compounds errors, like those demonstrated in the telephone game. A lot of information is lost -- forgotten, modified beyond recognition, or drowned out by information introduced.

What we call "history" is usually regarded as everything which is both intentionally extrasomatic and more permanent or less mortal than the spoken word -- writing, informational drawings like maps and schematics, and the like. The times before the intentional extrasoma, when we had only oral tradition and unintended artifacts of our civilization, we call "prehistoric." The first writing of a language began roughly 8,000 years ago. The first intentional, informational drawing was cave painting and is four times as old, beginning roughly 32,000 years ago.

We think of everything prehistoric as primitive or uncivilized. Even modern societies which do not have written language are thought to be embarrassingly crude. However, biologically there is no difference between those primitive people and you, or me. If we were born in the time before any language had been written, would we have been the first person to write? With no previous example, could you have created written language?

Our prejudice against those who live without the extrasoma is strong, and telling. We consider them somewhat less than human, or in any case, certainly less than us. This is an expression of how important the extrasoma has been to our success as individuals, communities, societies, and as a species.

The lack of the extrasoma is not less than human, though; instead, what is extrasomatic is more than human, because it is less mortal. In this sense, the extrasoma is greater than human.

However, any export of our thoughts and feelings is also imperfect; information is always lost in translation, whether through our failure to completely express ourselves, the imperfection of our medium of expression, or the failure of others to fully or even adequately understand our expression. In this sense, the extrasoma is less than human. The greatest immortality will be our own.

It is not difficult or unusual to communicate, to write something down, to create or to build, to make our mark. We do not struggle for motivation; we are as driven to the extrasoma as we are to life itself. The Dalai Lama is not showing us a difficult path to follow. Instead, he is telling us to travel that path mindfully. CompassionRise today seeks not to find a new way, but to seek in a new way. What we do intentionally, we do better.