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Being Immortal

by Bill Meacham on April 18th, 2020

My essay “Fearing Death” examines whether we have any reason to fear being dead. That essay assumes that death will come to all of us eventually. But what if it didn’t? What if we could live forever? As it happens, a lively topic in current philosophy is whether it would be desirable to be immortal.(1) Is living forever something you would really, after some thought, want to do? In the jargon, is it choiceworthy?

I suppose that if, without thinking much about it, you fear being dead, then, sure, you would want to avoid that state. But the point of philosophy is to examine such unreflective attitudes to see if they really make sense. In order to do so, we sometimes look at counterfactuals, things that are not true but could be, to see what follows from our assumptions. The idea of immortality is a counterfactual. Obviously, nobody (that we know of) lives forever, although some live quite a long time. But what if we could? Would it be rational to choose to do so?

In order to answer the question, we need more details of what this hypothetical immortal life would be like. What if we lived forever but just kept getting sicker and more frail, eventually hanging on endlessly by a thread and in pain? Such a life would not be at all appealing. It would perhaps be more tempting if we could get “frozen” at a certain biological age and state of health.

Let’s imagine the best case: you get to pick your biological age and how healthy you will be. (Biological age is how old your body seems to be, no matter how old you really are chronologically. You could seem to be, say, 27 even after living hundreds or thousands of years.) So you choose an age at which your health and mental acuity were at their peak; 27 or so sounds good to me, but you get to choose. And, of course, even though you seem to be 27, you are still you on the inside with all your memories and knowledge of the world, which accumulate over time. And you choose your state of health, which most likely would be quite robust. You never get sick. Your bones are so strong as to be almost unbreakable, and if they did break, they would heal very rapidly. You are extremely fit; you can complete triathlons in record time with ease. And so forth. Given such a state, wouldn’t it be rational to live forever in it?

Oh, but wait, there are more things to consider. Are you the only immortal person, or are there others? Is everyone immortal, or only some of you? These scenarios are fodder for science fiction, of course, but they bear on the question. If you are the only immortal person you might get quite lonely after a while. You might have to hide your immortality in order to avoid being seen as a freak or a savior or a medical specimen. If you are part of a group, you would have company, but you might get sick and tired of the others. Or you might be endlessly anxious about your status in their eyes. If everyone became immortal and still bore children, the world would soon get seriously overpopulated.

And what sort of immortality would you choose to have? You could be biologically immortal, meaning you wouldn’t get sick and die but would still be vulnerable to severe trauma. You could die by getting shot or by drowning or by car crash or the like. In that case you might end up living a rather secluded and cautious, even fearful, life. Or you could choose absolute immortality, meaning you couldn’t be destroyed at all; you would be invulnerable. That would present another challenge: how to stay interested in life. After a while you might be so bored that you’d rather not live anymore. But you wouldn’t be able to kill yourself, so you would be consigned to an eternal hell of ennui and despair. But on another hand, if we assume that the universe is infinite and in constant motion, then there would always be the possibility of discovering something new. Hence you would not be bored. Maybe such a life would be worth living after all.

None of these considerations so far take into account the possibility of an afterlife, some kind of continued existence after the death of the physical body. (I am convinced there is an afterlife, but that’s another story. See my essay “An Impeccable Death.”) If you suspect that after your reprobate life you would end up in hell, you might well want to stay here. But if you believe, as many do, that this life is a vale of tears, full of suffering, you might view with horror the prospect of a sentence of endless imprisonment. If your life here is pretty good, you might want to stay. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as we say in Texas. Or, even if your life here is good, you might have FOMO (fear of missing out) and be very curious about what is on the other side.

All this speculation may well seem to be irrelevant and silly, as we don’t actually expect to live forever, nor do we have the ability to choose the parameters of our immortal life. What’s the point, right? But there is a point. Actually there are two of them: to clarify the concept of a good life and to discover or decide how to live our own life.

Much of contemporary philosophy is concerned with clarifying the meaning and implications of concepts. Philosophers have been doing this ever since Socrates asked Laches what courage is.(2) The concept at issue here is the nature of a good life. By examining the counterfactual idea that we might live forever, we get clearer on what goodness is as it pertains to living. We find out what makes something, in this case a life, rationally desirable or worthwhile. But why do we want to know that? Well, one answer is that philosophers are curious folks and seem to enjoy this sort of analysis. But more deeply it’s not just goodness and life in the abstract that interest us, but our own lives.

We have a personal interest in what makes a good life, because we have to live one. That is, we have to live our life, and most of us would greatly prefer that it be one that is fulfilling and happy. The word “philosophy” comes from two Greek words, philia and sophia, that mean affection for wisdom. Wisdom is not just knowledge; it is knowledge of a particular sort, knowledge of how to live well.

So what can we learn about living well from this discussion of immortality? Each of us needs to answer for ourself, but some things seem clear. If you were to live forever, most likely you would prefer to be robustly healthy, of course, and you would want to keep your mental acuity. But would you prefer the company of other immortals or would you prefer the endless variety of newcomers being born, maturing and eventually dying? Or would you rather live alone? Whom to live with may be a personal preference, but you would probably not rather live alone, as the only thing that is capable of fully engaging the interest of a human mind is another human mind.

Regardless of whom you choose to be with, there is one person who would always be there: you yourself. What kind of person would you want to be if you had to live with yourself forever? I expect you’d want to be tranquil and content, not consumed with rage, hatred, jealousy, fear or any other afflictive emotion. You would want your internal state to be peaceful and free from sorrow. You would want to be pleased with how you have lived so far, happy with your current state, and looking forward to whatever comes next. You would want to live with beauty and harmony.

Now, you don’t have to hope to be immortal or wait until you are older than anyone else to want to find out how to live well. I’ve written a whole book on the subject, and I refer you to it rather than trying to summarize it here.(3) I just want to note one thing that is true of all humans and has a bearing on the issue: that we always find ourselves embedded in a world, situated in an environment. Our world is a web of interconnected processes, constantly changing, and each of us is one of them. In order to create beauty and harmony within our experience, we must create beauty and harmony, to the best of our ability, in the world because the world is the content of our experience.

To put it another way, everything, including every person, is related to everything else. In that case, it makes sense to try to maximize the good in all situations and to maximize what is good for all concerned. As you maximize the good of everybody and everything in the environment, you thereby promote your own health as well. (By “you” I mean everyone, each of us individually; and by “environment” I mean everything that surrounds us: people, animals, plants, non-living things, the earth, the atmosphere, the water, etc. Everything.)

If you were immortal, you would want to do that. So why wait? Start now.


Notes

(1) A good place to start is with Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin, “Immortality and Boredom.” Read it for an overview of some of the issues, then follow the citations.

(2) Plato, “Laches.”

(3) Meacham, How To Be An Excellent Human.


References

Fischer, John Martin, and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin. “Immortality and Boredom.” The Journal of Ethics (2014) 18:353–372. Available online at https://alaw003.wixsite.com/johnmartinfischer as of 16 April 2020

Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human: Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life. Austin: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at https://bmeacham.com/ExcellentHumanDownload.htm.

Plato, “Laches.” Tr. Benjamin Jowett. Online publication http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/laches.html as of 18 April 2020.

From → Philosophy

15 Comments
  1. The Existentialist philosophers believed that the meaning of being human is wrapped up in our consciousness of our own mortality. They stress the anxious side of life, as opposed to the false tranquility of immortality. My thought is that yearning for immortality is a wish to be separated from our biological nature. It’s hard not to think of this without bringing up cliches. I like Zorba the Greek’s idea of living life to the fullest. But doing that would be different and unique for each person. In my time as a nurse I saw many people die, and it seemed like a natural thing, a life coming to a close, like a period at the end of a sentence. I realize it is not always that way, some people die young, and die from accidents. My theory is that a big part of why we care about things in the world is our awareness of mortality. It we were immortal we wouldn’t care, because nothing would really matter. The infinite is a strange unworldly place, maybe a place we’d like to get a glimpse of, but definitely not someplace that we want to be forever.

    • Bill Meacham permalink

      Good point. If we were immortal we would have plenty of time to accomplish things but little motivation to do so because we could always put them off until later. Thanks.

  2. adam milgram permalink

    Immortality is one thing, but certainly science is enabling us to live longer lives, and that will continue. That alone will produce enormous effects on the world’s economy and of course perhaps overpopulation.

  3. This is quickly becoming my favorite philosophy blog. Thanks for that. Perhaps I don’t wish to read it eternally, 🙂 but a few more posts at least would be great. Keep them coming please.

    I’m definitely afraid of the dying process, as I suppose everyone is. And although I have many thoughts on this subject, I doubt I’ll know what my real relationship with death is until I get there. That disclaimed, let’s continue with the question you pose.

    Your question would seem to assume life and death are two different things. My understanding at the moment is that such divisions are an illusion generated by the inherently divisive nature of thought, that which we’re made of psychologically. As example, consider the noun, which conceptually divides reality in to parts in a rigid manner which doesn’t accurately represent the unified web of relationship which is the real world.

    It seems that the will to live is matched by an equal and opposite will to die. Two sides of the same coin?

    As example, consider the orgasm, which for a few brief moments obliterates all the memories, opinions, beliefs and dreams (ie. the “me”) we cling to so passionately, and we couldn’t be happier about this form of psychological death.

    A great many experiences that we value follow this same formula. My favorite example, surfing, requires so much attention to avoid being rudely dumped in to the chaos of a wave that this experience too obliterates the “me” for the duration of the ride. Glorious! There are countless other experiences great and small which follow this same pattern. The pursuit of life so often leads directly to an experience of death.

    Speaking more generally, we are a species with thousands of hydrogen bombs aimed down our own throats, an ever imminent self extinction threat which we typically find too boring to discuss. Point being, the question of a possible immortality arises in part because we think we might be brilliant enough to reach it. Before we jump off such a cliff we might recall that while we are indeed brilliant, we are also profoundly insane. I don’t think I really want to spend eternity with a loaded gun in my mouth.

    The urge to live is to a great degree equally an urge to die. Thought divides them in to two, but in reality they are perhaps a single process.

    So no, I don’t wish to be immortal. 68 years of being me has been mostly great, and a few more years will be welcomed, but a wise man hopes to steer clear of greed.

    Instead, my dream is to die like my uncle did. Mowing the hard on a hot 4th of July, heart attack, dead before he hit the ground. No trips to the medical gulag involved.

    And finally, we might recall that we have absolutely not the slightest knowledge of what death is, so there’s no way to make a rational decision anyway. So the question has to be enjoyed for itself without any hope of further result.

    Nature says that everything that has a beginning also has an end. I can’t improve upon that.

    • Bill Meacham permalink

      Thanks for your comments. You say

      > … such divisions are an illusion generated by the inherently divisive nature of thought…. As example, consider the noun, which conceptually divides reality in to parts in a rigid manner which doesn’t accurately represent the unified web of relationship which is the real world.

      Yes, the world seems to be a web of relationships, but it is useful to carve out some of the relata and treat them as distinct. More precisely, our experience is always changing, and we interpret it as a web of relationships and of the things related. Fortunately there are enough regularities in the flux of experience that we can use nouns to refer to the relata.

      You say

      > Your question would seem to assume life and death are two different things.

      Well, perhaps “things” is not the best word, but clearly dead things act quite differently from things that are alive.

      And

      > The urge to live is to a great degree equally an urge to die.

      Uh, I don’t think so, orgasms and peak flow experiences notwithstanding. Try submerging your head in water and see which urge quickly becomes overwhelming.

  4. Hi Bill, thanks for your engagement, and your blog. Good topics, this one particularly.

    You write, “Yes, the world seems to be a web of relationships, but it is useful to carve out some of the relations and treat them as distinct.”

    Yes, useful, but not fully accurate. As example, it can be useful to refer to “my ideas” as if that represents something distinct and separate. Conceptually there is a neat and tidy division. But in the real world, a boundary between “my ideas” and all others ideas is quite illusive. You know, I didn’t personally invent anything I’m writing here, people have been discussing such things for thousands of years.

    As example, when does a glass of water that you drink become you? We can reasonably draw that boundary in any number of places, which reveals that the boundaries are convenient human inventions.

    The relevance of this in regards to your post is that a boundary between life and death may also be more conceptual than real. As example, when surfing the “me” is gone, a form of temporary psychological death. But I am fully present in the real world, arguably more alive than my normal “lost in thought” experience.

    Do we wish to live forever? A related question could be, am I alive now? Say I’m walking down the beach lost in thought, completing missing the glorious sunrise unfolding around me. Am I alive? Sort of. I’m alive in the infinitely smaller symbolic realm of my own little mind, but I’m largely dead to that which is real. This is where most of us “live” most of the time, in a form of death.

    You write, “Well, perhaps “things” is not the best word, but clearly dead things act quite differently from things that are alive.”

    There are no good words for such topics because all of language inherits the bias for division generated by thought.

    Again we presume a neat and tidy boundary between dead and alive, and conceptually that’s useful. But in reality all living things are made entirely of dead stuff, chemical elements created in supernova explosions.

    You write, “Try submerging your head in water and see which urge quickly becomes overwhelming.”

    Ok, fair enough, but this breath holding experience also reveals how intimate is the bond between “me” and “everything else”.

    Apologies for all the words, and for getting distracted by my own thoughts. Now that that’s out of my system, I’ll read your article again and try to get back more on the topics you’ve raised.

  5. Bill, you write, “To put it another way, everything, including every person, is related to everything else.”

    This is pretty close to where I was trying to go. We are perhaps discussing the degree to which such relation exists.

    Every part of my body is related to every other part. The concept of “parts” is clearly useful. If we stand back a bit, we can also view my body as a single unified entity. If we stand back further yet, all of nature may be viewed as a single unified reality.

    • Bill Meacham permalink

      Right. The viewpoint we take depends on what we want to accomplish, or in what way we want to understand it.

  6. Charles writes, ” My theory is that a big part of why we care about things in the world is our awareness of mortality.”

    This seems reasonable, especially coming from a nurse.

    Is such caring built upon an unexamined assumption that we are in a position to compare life to death, and thus can reasonably define life as precious? Is such an assumption of ability valid, or just wishful thinking?

    I was listening to a show about suicide on NPR awhile back and the whole point of the entire show was how to help folks avoid suicide. A very well intentioned sentiment for sure, but consider the underlying message…

    “Death is bad, so we should try to avoid it at all costs.”

    The person considering suicide might hear this, “My life totally sucks, and death is even worse!” Not exactly an uplifting message?

    Consider the health care system. Trillions of dollars worth highly scientific enterprise built to a great degree upon a theory about death which is based on absolutely nothing.

  7. Pamela permalink

    I love the inquiry and I love your conclusion. If we all become better humans, we will all be happier…or something like that. And if we are so much better to the point of being ‘enlightened’ then we will experience real immortality!

  8. Bill writes, “To put it another way, everything, including every person, is related to everything else. In that case, it makes sense to try to maximize the good in all situations and to maximize what is good for all concerned.”

    When it comes to immortality, the question of life and death, how do we assign the values of good or bad in the absence of any information about one of the options? Life is good, in comparison to what??

    We could overcome the lack of information about death with a leap of faith in some preferred story, or just in the hope that whatever death is it is something good. If life is good, and death is good also, then the concept of “good” would seem to lose it’s meaning. If everything is good, then nothing is good.

    If we decide to hold on to the definition of life=good by declaring death to be bad, as is typically the case, then we have created a pretty terrible universe, given that the only thing we know for sure is that we will die. And, we have created this terrible universe out of nothing, given that we have no way of knowing what death really is. This hardly seems rational.

    If we define life as good by comparing it to death which is declared to be bad, then we have invented fear, which in turn becomes the source of most human problems. Thus, the good gives birth to the bad.

    An alternative to the above circus operation might be to recognize that dualistic polarities such as good vs. bad are creations of the inherently divisive nature of thought, that which we are made of.

    Maybe good and bad are not properties of reality, but instead properties of the tool being used to observe reality? As example, if you view the world through tinted sunglasses everything you observe no matter where you look will appear to be tinted. The tint isn’t real, but is instead just a form of distortion introduced by the method of observation.

    • Bill Meacham permalink

      You make good points, but I am not saying that being alive is better than being dead. I’m saying that while we are alive it makes sense to maximize the good for all concerned.

  9. Ok, I hear ya Bill. Perhaps what I’m stumbling towards asking is, does it maximize the good to create these categories of good and bad?

    Once I create the good, I’ve set myself up to be chasing various things, perhaps greed is born. Once I create the bad, then I’m running from other things, generating worry and fear, and all the maladies that flow from that. Once I create the good and the bad I’m sucked in to the melodrama circus of life.

    This circus is quite distracting, and I’ll likely be pulled in to my head where I am constantly making the good vs. bad calculations. Now that I’m lost in thought most of the time my attention is chronically focused on the symbolic realm between my ears, and the real world of my life tends to go by largely unnoticed much of the time. To the degree that is true, it could be said that I’m already kinda dead.

    I realize this is some kind of Eastern philosophy influence that I can’t even name, and that it’s not the most practical approach for we Westerners. But this is a philosophy site, so as a wannabe philosopher I feel obligated to rattle the cage of “good” as best I can.

    There is the good, the bad, and the realm outside of them both, where things just are.

  10. In that essay write that the good is, “what is advantageous for us”. Doesn’t somebody have to decide what is advantageous?

    Food might be declared good because it helps me survive. That definition would seem to depend on survival being good. Says who? Based on what? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that I define survival as good from my current limited perspective?

    I like the observation of the natural world part a lot. We can find common ground in that methodology.

    The natural world at every scale is overwhelmingly space. Space exists, but seems to meet none of the definitions of existence. It is there, but it is not. It seems that the overwhelming majority of reality is outside of human generated dualistic formulations such as “exists or doesn’t exist”.

    I’m proposing there is good, and there is bad, and there is a realm outside of them both.

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