John Martin Fischer takes on the Immortality Curmudgeons
Could an immortal life be worthy of choice for human beings? In contemporary philosophy, the English philosopher Bernard Williams has posed this question against the backdrop of Elina Makropulos’s choice to decline an elixir of eternal life in a play by Karol Capek, made into an opera by Janos Janacek. Elina’s life had become boring and alienating; she had lost all interest and projects that she cared about, and she thus threw away a second dose of an elixir that would give her three hundred more years of life. Williams famously contended that living forever would necessarily be boring for creatures like us, even under favourable physical circumstances (as in Elina’s case). You wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, choose to take that elixir, not because you would anticipate physical deterioration or environmental degradation, but because of the recognition of inevitable boredom – the “tedium of immortality.”
Is Williams right? He thought that, since Elina had run out of projects, her life had become boring and meaningless. For Williams (and may other philosophers), meaning in life comes from certain projects that propel one into the future. Different people will specify the projects differently, and give different weights to them in determining the meaning they add to our lives. On this view, when all such projects are gone, one’s life is no longer meaningful. Since Williams believed that any human being will eventually lose all their meaning-giving projects, he thought that no one’s life could be endlessly meaningful. He is the prototypical Immortality Curmudgeon, at least in recent philosophy.
We often analyse the value status of death in terms of the meaningfulness of life. Human beings are capable of leading meaningful lives, and thus our deaths can be not only bad for us, but tragedies for us – bad in a distinctive way. Perhaps premature death need not be a bad thing for us (when we are in horrible pain, for instance), but when it cuts off the capacity to pursue projects that give meaning to our lives, it is bad for us (not just our loved ones, friends, and colleagues) in a distinctive and objectively significant way. For a non-human animal, premature death cannot be a bad thing in the same way. A non-human animal has no projects for the future of the sort that can give meaning to its life.
Some think that the premature death of a non-human animal cannot be bad at all for the animal, insofar as it does not have the capacity to lead a meaningful life. I do not agree. Premature death of an animal might deprive it of goods it otherwise would have had, in particular, pleasurable experiences. It can thus be bad for the animal, but not a tragedy or bad in the distinctive way in which premature death can be bad for a human being (insofar as it cuts off important projects). It is bad that a creature is deprived of good experiences, even if this is not a tragedy. I’ll return to this point below.
Williams’s thought-experiment collides with one suggested by the American philosopher, Thomas Nagel. He envisages (roughly) that you are given a choice every week – say Monday morning (after you’ve had a nice cup of coffee!) – as to whether you live one more week, or die painlessly in a few minutes. Assuming, as in the case of Elina Markropulos, that your external circumstances and health are favourable and will be for a week, Nagel says that he would choose the extra week. Surely many of us would. (He wonders whether Williams is just more easily bored than he is.) I know that I would choose the additional week. I would choose it every week. This is equivalent to choosing to live forever. I am no Immortality Curmudgeon.
How do we reconcile the views of Williams and Nagel here? How can it make sense to choose eternal life, given the fact that it is hard to imagine endlessly fascinating and engaging projects? First, I’m not at all convinced that my projects would inevitably run out in an immortal life. Of course, I’d have to mix my activities in a sensible way, not pursuing one project exclusively or relentlessly. Kierkegaard used the analogy of the farmer who must rotate their crops; to get the most pleasure or positive experiences over time, you have to “rotate your crops.” Given an appropriate distribution of my energies, why would my projects inevitably stop being engaging?
Consider a project such as pursuing an understanding of science, including physics. When interspersed with other pleasurable activities, or simply project palate-cleansers, so to speak, why would I inevitably lose interest in physics? What about astronomy, including the study of other solar systems in our galaxy, and the search for extraterrestrial life? When I want to take a break from astrophysics, I can take a walk along a beautiful stream, have a nice dinner with a friend, watch an interesting film, and get to bed. The next morning, having had my favourite Italian roast, I can continue work on my novel, or practice the piano, or… In a few days, I can return to my study of physics, refreshed and excited for my latest breakthroughs in understanding, and discoveries of the scientists. What is wrong with this picture? Why can’t it continue indefinitely?
We could extrapolate this story to include a myriad of other intellectual projects, projects of self-development and social engagement, pleasurable activities such as enjoying food, drink, music, art, and sex, and so forth. Think of deep friendship and love. Such relationships gain in depth and beauty over time. If a friendship or love relationship ends, why can’t one start another, as in a finite life? Many people have several marriages in their lives, or none at all; are their lives not meaningful? Why adopt a double standard in evaluating finite and infinite lives?
We are in pain – physical and mental – at least during some periods in our finite lives, and yet this doesn’t in itself imply lack of meaningfulness. We are often bored, even when pursuing projects we care deeply about. A dedicated physician must fill out insurance paperwork; an instructor must file their lesson-plans, grade the exams, and so forth. Boredom comes with the territory of human life. In fact, it helps to replenish and rejuvenate our mental powers, just like sleep. Would one inevitably fall into a boredom from which one could never recover in an immortal life? I don’t see why, any more than in a finite life.
Thus far I’ve explained why I do not believe that human beings would necessarily run out of compelling, meaning-enhancing projects and activities in an immortal life. This gives one reason to choose the elixir. Some, however, are not convinced by these cheery ruminations, and they steadfastly cling to the notion that, given human nature, we would inevitably lose our passion for our projects (old or new). They contend that the perky ideas above come from a superficial consideration of immortal life, and that if we carefully reflected, we would see that our initial optimism cannot be sustained.
Immortal lives would be very different from our finite lives, and basic facts about our values and ways of conceptualising ourselves (and our relationships to others) would have to change. It is not straightforward to imagine an immortal life that is recognisably human and, upon careful reflection, worthy of choice. Call me a Pollyanna, but I believe that we can (difficult as it may be).
Let’s put all of this aside for now and simply assume that all our projects would have to come to an end in an immortal life, and that such a life would thus inevitably be meaningless. On the assumption that this is true, and that I know this, could I still rationally choose immortal life under certain circumstances? To answer this question, we need to consider more carefully the relationship between meaning in life and the badness of death, and how these factors should play a role in our choices.
As I suggested above, the value-status of premature death can be different for non-human animals and us. Such a death can be a tragedy for human beings, but not non-human animals. Only the premature truncation of a meaningful life can be a tragedy for the deceased. I contended above, however, that a premature death can nevertheless be a bad thing for an animal. I would say the same thing about a human life that has ceased to be meaningful (because the individual’s projects have run out). Death can still deprive such an individual of positive experiences, even if they are not part of ongoing projects that they find engaging. This sort of human being could still deem it a bad thing to die sooner rather than later, and could reasonably choose continued life (even immortal life). Given that it can be rational and appropriate to choose to avoid misfortune, a choice to live even a meaningless life forever could be defensible.
Everyone in the contemporary debate evaluates Williams’s thought-experiment pertaining to Elina Makropulos with the assumption that a meaningless life could not be worthy of choice, and the focus then is on the first issue we briefly explored above, whether the projects would inevitably fade away eventually. This seems to me to over-simplify. If our projects give meaning to our lives, then a life without such projects would be meaningless; but it could still contain pleasures and positive experiences, as an animal’s life can.
From the fact that a life would not contain compelling projects, it would not follow that the pleasurable experiences would be desultory and unorganised. An animal recognises its master and other animals, possibly developing strong feelings of attachment. Animals grieve when they suffer losses. They have a framework within which they organise their experiences – a kind of affective filing cabinet – even though they do not have freely chosen projects for the future. The same can be true of a human being. A human being could enjoy life, even if not as robustly as possible, without compelling projects.
I think that I would choose such a life, rather than death, and that this decision is defensible. Of course, it would be much better to have a meaningful immortal life, but we are here assuming (for the sake of discussion) that this is impossible. We shouldn’t let the perfect spoil the good (or at least, the not so bad)! We should not conclude straightaway that a life is not worthy of choice, if it does not contain projects of the relevant kinds, and if this would make it a meaningless life. Deliberation is about choosing better and avoiding worse. We play the cards that are dealt us.
Think of the last time you were on a long – perhaps transatlantic – plane flight. You were bored, perhaps very bored, but let’s say that you were able to amuse yourself. Perhaps you forgot the novel you were reading, and the only material available was the crossword puzzles in the in-flight magazine and a few dumb articles. Still, you could while away the time, and you found the food palatable, if not exciting. (Bizarrely, you found yourself looking forward to these paltry meals and snacks.) These facts (involving modest amusement and distraction) do not imply that you were not bored; in fact, you did those puzzles and read (and re-read!) those articles because you were bored. I doubt that the boredom was so disturbing that you would have preferred that the plane suddenly explode, leading to the sudden and painless death of everyone on board!
You do know, however, that even a transatlantic flight in economy class will end. What if all the projects you care about were gone in what you know to be an immortal life? This issues in the sort of boredom Williams, and many of his fellow Immortality Curmudgeons, have in mind: you are “alienated” and disengaged from your life. But as in the flight, you could still find amusing and at least mildly enjoyable ways to spend one’s days. I don’t even see why it would follow from lack of projects that you couldn’t have some very pleasant experiences (a fine meal?) that are not part of ongoing, freely chosen projects. If I were given the choice of this sort of immortal life or none at all (i.e., immediate and painless annihilation), I would choose the life, and I don’t think this is idiosyncratic. A meaningless life might be choice-worthy, given bad enough options. It is at least not obvious that human beings in general would prefer no consciousness at all ever again to continued conscious life under favourable circumstances, even without projects.
Granted: boredom can become so extreme and disturbing that one cannot enjoy anything, or even be mildly amused by the passing parade of life. Such a life would not be worthy of choice. I am simply observing that the meaninglessness that results from the permanent lack of engaging projects does not in itself entail that one would not overall prefer continued life. Only the death of a creature with the capacity to lead a meaningful life can be tragic for the deceased, but the death of a non-human animal can be bad for the animal. The death of a human being whose life is meaningless can similarly be bad for the individual, and it would not necessarily be unreasonable to choose to avoid it (given the opportunity).
“Give me liberty or give me death!” “Live free or die!” These famous slogans have considerable appeal. Similarly, the (not quite so famous) rallying cry of the Immortality Curmudgeons, “give me projects or give me death!” rings true to many. They exaggerate an important point: a life without freely chosen projects is not meaningful, in the distinctive way a human life can be meaningful. Some will surely accept that a meaningless life (in the specific sense under consideration – a life without projects) is not worth living (and thus not worth choosing under any circumstances). I claim, however, that not all will adopt this view.
No doubt individuals’ propensities to become bored vary greatly, and thus it is not obvious that engaging projects must run out eventually. Similarly, individuals differ about the potential choiceworthiness of a meaningless (and for that reason) boring life, where the alternative is immediate death. These facts about the variation in human psychological makeups call into question a thesis dear to the Immortality Curmudgeons: living forever could not be worthy of choice for beings like us. Give me at least a few million years, and I’ll see how it goes!
John Martin Fischer is University Professor in the University of California, and the author of Death, Immortality, and Meaning in Life (Oxford University Press, 2020).