"Shoulao, God of Longevity, with his attendants in the heavens." Zhang Liu. 16th Century. Courtesy Shanghai Museum.

September 27 - 29

Noyce Conference Room

 “To be mortal is the most basic human experience, and yet man has never been able to accept it, grasp it, and behave accordingly. Man doesn't know how to be mortal. And when he dies, he doesn't even know how to be dead.” 

― Milan Kundera, Immortality 

The most fundamental facts of complexity are its origin and its death. The second law of thermodynamics and a number of fluctuation theorems – systems tend towards states of disorder -- seem to make a fantasy of immortality. Yet within the limits of the law there exists a great range of variation in the duration of any given life. The ultimate lifespan of organisms, lineages, societies, ideas, and institutions remains largely unknown. For each of these we might expect new models and theories that establish principled limits. 

The mortality of an organism reflects a balance between growth and repair at the individual level, and cooperation and conflict at the population level. There is no logical reason that an evolving lineage could not be locally immortal but for the finite lifespan of ecosystems, cities, and ultimately the solar system. Even immaterial ideas are transient such that for every great idea there is always one sufficiently better that will replace it. And institutions - from markets and companies to legal systems and polities - reflect the needs and values of the mortal and constantly changing individuals that they serve. Institutions do not outlive beliefs. 

Material culture, to include computer power and memory, suggests a way that ideas might significantly outlast the people and populations that produce them. The technological singularity is the article of faith that asserts that the thermodynamics of computing will overcome the physiology of aging. The huge energetic inefficiencies of engineered technology suggest that this belief might lack credibility. It sounds a lot like Kundera's observation that when we die, we don't "even know how to be dead". Technology optimists might reply with Langston Hughes who wrote that we should, “Hold fast to dreams/ For if dreams die/ Life is a broken-winged bird/ That cannot fly. 

In the SFI 2023 September Complex Time General Conference on Immortality we shall explore the multiscale nature of variation in longevity and mortality as they relate to fundamental principles of adaptation, cooperation, competition, and cultural evolution.


Key Questions: 

1. What is the connection of fundamental entropic principles to the properties and the lifespans of the systems that you study? Or stated differently, to what extent does the second law contribute to what you would define as aging and death? 

2. What are the shared or common characteristics of all long-lasting/lived systems? 

3. Are their normative interactions – behavior, medicine, etc - that could significantly or indefinitely extend the life span of your systems? 

4. To what extent is biology and technology and culture entangled in the quest for longer lifespans, and are there major transitions in materials that might lead to singularity-like outcomes? 

5. How should we understand the idea of immortality: as a theoretical limit, an achievable reality, or an idea with largely negative consequences? 

This event is supported by the James S. McDonnell Foundation Grant Number 220020491, Adaptation, Aging, and the Arrow of Time. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the James S. McDonnell Foundation.


David KrakauerDavid KrakauerPresident + William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems at SFI
Caitlin McSheaCaitlin McSheaDirector, Experimental Projects at the Santa Fe Institute