Is Immortality Desirable?
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In this paper I discuss whether immortality in the physical form is desirable. In accordance with the deprivation account I seek to defend the commonsense view that death is a bad thing for the individual but will argue that consistency and logic does not require me to believe that an immortal existence is to be desired. I defend Bernard Williams' claim that with an immortal life we are doomed to an eternity of never ending repetition, boredom and indifference and that death is a necessary evil if we are to avoid a life devoid of freshness. I will also argue that death and the very limitation that its sets down gives life meaning. In support of Victor Fankl I will defend the claim that it is time pressure that shapes our lives. In developing my argument I will oppose the counter argument that it is death that makes life meaningless not meaningful.
Is Immortality desirable?
Is it simply a design fault that we age and die? Are we living in a culture of death whereby we die simply because we accept it as an inevitability? “All men are mortal” said Socrates, however, a lifetime spent on in-depth research has led pioneering scientists to deem aging not as an inevitable consequence of the human condition but as a preventative disease. Perhaps these scientists are far too optimistic in their search for a virtual fountain of youth, or is it simply the case that death – the end of the physical being, is accepted by the mind and embraced through reinforced teachings and observation. Whether you believe that a quest for immortality will or will never be achieved is irrelevant to the question at hand. The focus will be on whether immortality is desirable, assuming something can be desired yet impossible. Clarification of what I mean by immortality is essential; I will focus on what can be described as physical immortality- by this I mean that one can live for eternity as a human physical being on earth (where everyone is immortal). In my interpretation, I will also assume that there is no get out clause, take for example one is offered an elixir of immortal life, once taken a person cannot change their mind opting for death- immortality is forever.
My definition will also incorporate a block on aging; eternity will be lived through a perfectly healthy functioning body. Accidents will be possible but can be fixed with ease. Intentionally, I have painted a picture of immortality which may at first glance seem desirable, as one may be quick to argue that an immortal life where a person is forever aging to the point of an eternity of pain and discomfort and where accidents occurred and could not be fixed is simply not one to be desired. However, throughout this essay I will put forward the argument that those who believe immortality to be desirable have made an irrational choice, it would be a mistake to crave an immortal life and take the elixir of eternal existence. I will approach this issue by initially examining Nagel's (1970) question of whether it is a terrible thing to go out of existence, I will agree and defend the deprivation account of the evil and badness of death claiming it is possible to do so while maintaining immortality would be a bad thing. The idea that boredom will develop if there was no end to human life will be explored, assessing much of the support from Bernard Williams (1973) as well as opposing and tackling one of John Martin Fischer's (1994) criticisms of the above view. The second argument that I will present (which overlaps with my first) will be based on the meaning of life, I will argue that death and the very limitations that it sets down gives life meaning and this will be explored by assessing the views of Victor Frankl (1957) as well as counterarguments by Robert Nozick's (1981).
Firstly, to determine whether immortality is a good thing, I pose the question of whether death is a bad thing. 'Death' is an ambiguous term so let me be clear of the definition it will take in my essay. I will take death to mean the end of the physical being, the cessation of life. I am aware that defining death in this way is problematic but let us assume for the sake of simplicity that this is correct. My concern at this point is whether death is a bad thing for the person who dies, referring to the state of non existence (at least in the physical form), not the process of dying. For many, a rational response in life is to fear death- after all, it is our most personal and valuable asset, but is it really, as Nagel stated, a terrible thing to go out of existence? There has been extensive philosophical discussion and disagreement regarding this matter, with philosophers such as Bernard Williams (1973), who argue death has its rightful place; a point to which I will later return, and there are those such as Thomas Nagel (1970) who speak of its badness. Lucretius, however, argue that something can only be good or bad for a person if that person exists at the time the event takes place and is experienced, if we take death to mean non-existence where non-existence is nothingness then death cannot be said to be good or bad as only something can be interpreted in this way.
I, however, believe that death is bad, agreeing with Nagel in most parts but at the same time believe that immortality, never dying is also bad, this is not a contradiction. I disagree with the Lucretius argument for the very same reason Nagel rejected their reasoning, Nagel presents an example of an individual betrayed unknowingly behind his back, although the person never becomes aware of this, it seems fair to say that the betrayal was a bad thing for the person involved, in this way the Lucretius connection between badness and experience does not hold true (Nagel, 1970:76). It may be the case that something can be intrinsically bad, bad in itself or in its own right, for example, pain is avoided for its own sake. It may also be the case that something can be comparatively bad, bad by virtue of what you're not getting while this other thing is present. I take the latter point to be the case for the badness of death. It seems to me that something can be bad even if you don't exist, existence is not a requirement, in fact it is the very fact that you don't exist that makes death bad.
The central bad about death, about non existence, is that it deprives you of the goods of life you might otherwise be getting, I couldn't fall in love, enjoy a sunset or master philosophy.From this, it should follow that life is good because if I wasn't dead I wouldn't be deprived; more of a good thing is always better than less of a good thing; therefore more life is better than less life; it should follow therefore that eternal life never dying is exceptionally good. However, the rules of logic and reason do not require somebody who accepts the deprivation account to believe that immortality is to be desired. Looking closely at the deprivation account, what it claims is that death is bad insofar as it deprives us of the 'good' things we could have otherwise experienced, but we shouldn't assume that life is good or always good (maybe Nagel does or often seems to assume this) what if it turned out that what you would have hereafter would be in fact a life full of bad things. It would therefore be a bad thing that you would go through the rest of your life which in this case would be an eternity with negative experiences. I will now go on to explain that it is an inevitability that an eternal life will somewhere down the line cease to be good, transforming into an eternity of badness in which case still in accordance with the deprivation account death will no longer be bad.
I agree that at first thought immortality may be tempting the argument that life is too short will no longer exist. Think of all the things you could get done, you could devout years to writing great philosophy, you could take pleasure in countless sunsets and sunrises, you could enjoy things endlessly having more time to see and achieve things that you would have otherwise not had time to. Here is my argument, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing, medicine for example is something which is instrumentally good, however, although it is good in small doses in that it cures a disease for example if I take more than the prescribed amount it becomes harmful to my body. In this same way extending human life by 50 or even a 100 years can be good but what if someone added a thousand, a million, an eternity to your life? Having done and seen everything you could possible have imagined everything will start to feel the same, having experienced love and the sunset millions of times they would no longer excite you. Eternity is a very long time, forever goes on forever and boredom will eventually set in leaving you existing as oppose to living. It seems that I am in agreement with Bernard Williams, in his essay “The Makropulos Case:Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality” (1973) who also argues that an eternal existence would be intolerable, claiming that as human beings it is inevitable that by our very nature we will get bored we would be doomed to never ending repetition and boredom, life would simply be devoid of interest or freshness. He supports his view by discussing a play by Karel Capek which tells of a woman named Elina Makropulos, who at the age of 42 was given an elixir of eternal life by her father. The play is set 300 years on and Elina is now aged 342, Williams states that
“Her unending life has come to a state of boredom, indifference, and coldness. Everything is joyless: “in the end it is the same,” she says, “singing and silence.” She refuses to take the elixir again; she dies; and the formula is deliberately destroyed by a young woman among the protest of some older men” (Williams,1973:82).
EM has lived her life at the age of 42 for 300 years and it seems that everything that could happen to a woman of 42 has already happened to her. John Martin Fischer in an article titled 'Why immortality is not so bad' criticizes Williams' argument; Fischer asserts that if there was a sufficiently diverse package of experiences we would not get bored (Fischer 1994). He acknowledges that there are those pleasures that would be 'self exhausting', those which we would not want to repeat more than once or a few times as we would inevitably get bored. His examples of these 'self exhausting pleasures' include pleasures that are disappointing which one would not want to repeat for that very reason and those non-disappointing pleasures which you do to fulfil a goal to prove something to yourself, for example, to overcome your phobia of heights you climb Mount Whitney but this is an experience you do not want to repeat. He acknowledges that there are those pleasures that are self exhausting but there are many repeatable pleasures that we would never get bored of like listening to beautiful music or seeing great art and we would therefore never fall victim to Williams' boredom account.
I disagree with Fischer, firstly it seems to me his examples of 'self exhausting pleasures' present a distorted view of what pleasure really is. I agree that disappointing pleasures may appear to be pleasurable before the act but after we experience the disappointment they cease to fall into this category. It appears that these disappointing pleasures are not pleasures at all and should not fall into the category of 'self exhausting pleasures'. It is a similar case for his example of 'non disappointing self exhausting pleasures' like climbing a mountain to overcome a phobia, climbing this mountain is not done for sheer pleasure, we may experience pride and we may experience some pleasure from this pride but the very act is done reluctantly and is not pleasurable within itself. To claim that he partly agrees with Williams' that there are those pleasure that are self exhausting is somewhat misleading what he presents in the above case are not pleasures at all.
What Williams said, is to think of the most perfect immortality that you can imagine and imagine doing this forever, the above so called pleasures do not fall into this; it seems obvious they would not want to be repeated. Fischer also goes on to explain a second category of pleasures which he called 'repeatable pleasures' which include listening to music and enjoying art, Fischer believed that if these pleasures were appropriately distributed (not too closely to each other ) they could be repeated countless times. I disagree; although in this case they could be classed as pleasure, it seems we would still inevitably get bored maybe not after 100 or even two hundred years but somewhere down the line of a never ending life we would get bored. I can only enjoy a piece of music a limited number of times before it no longer brings me pleasure. However at this point an objection may arise; some may argue that human potential is endless reducing the likelihood of boredom. There are millions of songs to be heard and millions more that will emerge, there is a countless number of things that can be enjoyed that will never run out so you are not doomed to be repeating the same things over and over, and maybe when things start to get tedious new things will be invented to occupy our minds.
The response to this is that having heard a thousand, a million, two million, songs they will all eventually take the same shape, nothing new can be invented that would be so drastically different from all previous inventions. Another point to be made is that Elina Makropulos maintains the same character throughout her life changing only to adapt to her surroundings it could therefore be suggested that the boredom she experienced was a result of her unchanging character not the fact that she lived for such a long period of time. Williams addresses this throughout his article, he argues that as human beings we aim to be, and usually succeed, in becoming a certain type of person, we develop a certain set of interests, a certain way of acting and we become settled as that type of person. His thought is that those who can avoid boredom and continue to find things interesting are not sufficiently mature there seems to be something wrong with them as such immortality is not a life for a human being (Williams 1973) . Let us now introduce a way boredom can be avoided in accordance with his argument, a possibility Williams considers is rejuvenation; by this he means you remain a human being in that you maintain the same body but every so often you are rejuvenated, a certain part of your history disappears and is replaced by a new start.
Although this seems to deal with the boredom issue Williams does questions whether this is in fact you? Every time I am rejuvenated I have no recollection of my prior self and build a whole new character based on different memories and experiences. It seems wrong to say that I am the same person after being rejuvenated for the hundredth time as I was prior to my first rejuvenation (Williams,1973:92). Even if we are persuaded that you are the same person Williams would argue that it is not giving you anything that you could be interested in, the absence of a continuity of consciousness is a serious problem. Even if it is not death it is as bad as death to be rejuvenated in this way. Another possibility to consider is the gradual deterioration of memory where we forget things as time goes on for example every 200 years. However I believe this raises the same question as above are we really the same person if we live in a 200 year envelope? Williams concludes that death is a necessary evil; we should hope to die if we are to avoid the alternative of immortality.
My second argument to why immortality is not desirable is based on the meaning of life. I believe that death and the very limitations that it sets down gives life meaning. My second argument overlaps with my first but what I wish to specifically argue here is that it is the very fact that we are here for what is comparatively a short time that makes our lives meaningful, in the way we act and behave, this is the idea that it is time pressure that shapes our lives. It is irrelevant whether one believes or does not believe in god or any form of creator or greater being, they will still find life meaningless without death, even if you merely carry on living out of the fear of dying. I believe that all good things have to have a beginning, middle and an end and each is necessary and is enjoyed accordingly. Victor Frankl argues that death itself is what makes life meaningful, his reasoning is as follows:
“What would our lives be like if they were not finite in time, but infinite? If we were immortal, we would legitimately postpone every action forever. It would be of no consequence whether or not we did a thing now; every act might just as well be done tomorrow or the day after or a year from now or ten years hence. But in the face of death as absolute finis to our future boundary to our possibilities, we are under the imperative of utilizing our lifetimes to utmost, not letting the singular opportunities- whose 'finite' sum constitutes the whole of life-pass by unused” (Frankl,1957:73).
Nozick , however, has a problem with this argument, in his book “Philosophical explanation” he wonders whether death in fact makes life meaningless not meaningful, he argues that
“Frankl assumes our only desire is to have done certain things, to put certain things somewhere on our record…….However, we may desire to do things; our desire need not be merely to have done them. Moreover, if we had an infinite life, we might view it as a whole, as something to organize, shape and do something with” (Nozick,1981:579-580)
I disagree, firstly it was not assumed by Frankl that we merely do things to put them on record, what was being said is that we have a limited amount of time to do things but we do not merely do them just to tick a box but to grow and evolve as human beings because pursuing our goals enriches our lives. It is the very fact that we have a finite time that motivates us to make those decisions and do those things that enhance our lives, which would only be forever delayed with an infinite existence. For example why should I go to school if I don't like it? The simple answer is to learn to acquire skills that would help me to achieve and make something of my self before I die and cease to exist. If I was immortal, learning trigonometry would seem less attractive than watching TV or playing computer games all day. I get more pleasure from such things (in the short term at least) and watching TV is certainly easier than studying and I'll get round to learning trigonometry sometime.Time pressure is what makes us set goals, with an immortal life tasks would forever be extended and a consequence would emerge whereby we would be less likely to do things of value, we would become a stagnant society where simple pleasures rule.
Even if we are partly motivated by the desire to do things not only to have done things they would still be postponed and contrary to what Nozick claims this would matter as the desire alone to do things does not make ones life meaningful it may contribute to some poor will to carry on living (to do that specific thing) but will not give satisfaction to ones life. Nozick also questions whether death in fact makes life meaningless? Many argue that death renders life futile because we will all eventually die and so there is no point in developing character or studying calculus if our progress is ultimately going to be permanently interrupted and it will all go to waste. It seems to me that to argue that death makes life meaningless is to argue that something can only be meaningful if it lasts forever. The truth is that many things we value and find worthwhile do not last forever. I affirm that most if not all actions other than pleasures within themselves are predominantly motivated by the desire to get things done and enrich our lives from them before we die. Death is a deadline, a necessary evil; we know every day that passes we will never get back and this gives meaning and shapes how we live and thus an immortal life is not one to be desired.
So far a strong argument has been provided for the undesirability of an immortal life but is there any situation in which immortality can be desired? In setting out what I meant by immortality I disallowed a get out clause, let us now suppose you would be able to live as long as you wanted and when you eventually had enough it would be possible to take your own life, is the elixir of eternal existence now more attractive? Surely it is, however, this is not all together straight forward. Take for example a mortal who chooses to commit suicide, in taking their own life he/she is giving up for example another 30 years, however, in the case of an immortal he/she is giving up what is essentially an eternity. They may be unhappy now but they could not possibly know that this would be the case in a million or a billion years time, choosing to take an immortal life is of greater consequence. In allowing a get out clause we would also become a very unadventurous and risk- averse society, who would take the risk of bungee jumping, paragliding and so forth if what they are risking is an infinite lifespan? Although this may seem a more attractive model of immortality it is complicated and can it really be called immortality if we allow this get out clause? It seems to me the very fact that we would choose this model supports my argument, that immortality would cease to be good and we would all sooner or later opt to take our own lives.
In conclusion immortality in the physical human sense is never a good thing. It should not be desired; whatever perfect life you imagine to want to experience forever it will soon become tedious and boredom will eventually set in. Death is therefore necessary, even in accordance with the deprivation account, as further existence would become a bad thing sooner or later and it will no longer be the case whereby death deprives you of the good things life has to offer but where death provides an end to all that is bad with an eternal existence. It is also the inevitability of death that gives life reason and shape, the very fact that we have a limited lifespan motivates people through a sense of urgency to spend their time doing those things that contribute meaning and enrich their lives which would forever be delayed with inevitable consequences with an immortal life. Without death there would be no such thing as sacrifice, putting a life's work into something, heroism and courage, we would lack appreciation for our existence, life would not be as serious or meaningful. I believe there to be an artistic necessity about dying- in the same way a picture has a frame, one cannot imagine an infinite painting, or a play has a shape and a final curtain, one can't imagine a play going on forever. Why grope for some mysterious realm for which we are not properly equipped to function in? Although I have argued that immortality is bad, this is not to say that it is a good thing that we die when we do, in accordance with all above arguments one can still think that we die too soon.
- Fischer, M. (1994). Why Immortality is Not So Bad. International Journal of Philosophical Studies. 2, 257-270.
- Frankl, V (1957). The Doctor and the Soul. Alfred Knopf. New York
- Nagel, T (1970). Death. Nous. 4, 73-80
- Nozick, R (1981). Philosophical Explanations. Oxford. Clarendon Press
- Williams, B (1973). Problems of the Self: Philosophical Papers 1956-1972. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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