Rand's Immortal Robot
Rand's Immortal Robot (Rand's Robot) is an argument made by libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand regarding the concept of finitude as a requirement to produce value. It argues that beings without finitude would have none of the interests or goals that have driven humanity to create modern civilization. While Rand herself never used it to debate Immortalists or Transhumanists, it still serves as a powerful objectiion against those seeking life extension and Transhumanism.
Rand’s “immortal robot” argument is found in “The Objectivist Ethics” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 15):
To make this point fully clear, try to imagine an immortal, indestructible robot, an entity which moves and acts, but which cannot be affected by anything, which cannot be changed in any respect, which cannot be damaged, injured or destroyed. Such an entity would not be able to have any values; it would have nothing to gain or to lose; it could not regard anything as for or against it, as serving or threatening its welfare, as fulfilling or frustrating its interests. It could have no interests and no goals.
The “immortal robot” argument needs to be challenged because it originates from Ayn Rand, who otherwise espouses numerous rational ideas. I myself agree with most of the fundamental principles that Ayn Rand advocates. However, in some of her particular reasoning – at least, if applied to the wrong context – she can be off-target in such a way as to retard further progress. The often-leveled argument, derived by contemporary non-transhumanist Objectivists from the above-quoted passage, is that achieving indefinite longevity would turn human beings into Ayn Rand’s description of the “immortal, indestructible robot”.
In responding to Rand’s argument, several points can be made in relation to prolonging human life indefinitely and lifting the death sentence that hangs over all of us. First, at no point in time will human beings become the “immortal, indestructible robots” that Ayn Rand describes. The simple reason for this is that our existence is physical and contingent on certain physical prerequisites being fulfilled. The moment one of these physical prerequisites is lacking, our existence ceases. This will always be the case, even if we no longer have a necessary upper limit on our lifespans. For instance, biomedical advances that would greatly expand human lifespans – allowing periodic reversions to a more youthful biological state and therefore the possibility of an indefinite existence – would not turn humans into indestructible robots. There would still be the need to actively turn back biological processes of decay, and the active choice to pursue such treatments or not. People who live longer by successfully combating senescence could still get run over by a car or experience a plane crash. They would retain potential vulnerability to certain perils – such as death from accidents – although, as I have explained in “Life Extension and Risk Aversion”, they may be more diligent in seeking to greatly reduce the probability of such outcomes. If it is ever the case that death by senescence and the myriad diseases which kill many human beings today can be averted, then human beings will try to avert the other possibilities of death – for instance, by developing safer modes of transportation or engaging in fewer wars.
It is possible to significantly reduce the likelihood that one can be destroyed, without ever eliminating the theoretical potential of such destruction. Furthermore, because human beings have free will, they always have at least the hypothetical option of choosing to undermine the physical prerequisites of their own lives. In my view, no sane, rational being would actually choose to pursue that option, but the option is there nonetheless. For anybody who seeks to commit suicide by immediate or gradual means, or by refusing to take advantage of life-prolonging techniques once they become available, there is virtually nothing in the world that could prevent this, apart from rational persuasion (which may or may not be successful).