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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Would Immortality be Desirable? (Part One)



The Makropulos Affair is a famous three-act opera written by the Czech composer Leos Janacek, based on a play of the same name by Karel Capek. It tells the story of Elina Makropulos who, at the age of 42, is given an elixir of life by her father. The elixir allows her to live another 300 years at her current biological age. After those 300 years, she can choose to take the elixir again and live for another 300 years, or she can allow herself to die naturally. The opera/play concludes with her having lived out her 300 years and, having become bored with her existence, choosing to death over another 300 years. (Sort of: that’s not a perfect summary of what happens but it’s good enough for present purposes)

Elina’s story — which, speaking as a sci-fi fan, has obvious similarities with that of Heinlein’s Lazarus Long — was used by the philosopher Bernard Williams to make an argument about the tedium of immortality (“The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality”). Williams argued that if we were truly immortal, we would end up like Elina, bored with our existence and longing to die. Obviously, this conclusion runs contrary to the beliefs of many of the world’s religions, which are all to keen to promise their followers immortality. Thus, if Williams is correct, and if immortality would indeed be the mother of all tediums, he will have shown something significant.

But is Williams right? Unsurprisingly, Williams’s article has generated a plethora of commentary over the years. I can’t hope to do justice to all of that commentary here. But I will look at one article that tries to defend Williams’s basic thesis. The article is called “Immortality and Significance” and it is by Aaron Smuts, whose work I considered earlier in the year when looking at the badness of death. Smuts argues that Williams reached the right conclusion, but for the wrong reasons. He tries to show what the right reasons are by, in part, drawing lessons from Borges’s short story “The Immortal”.

I’m going to be looking at Smuts’s article over the next few posts. In this first post, I want to set the scene by trying to summarise Williams’s argument, and some of the basic criticisms thereof.


1. Williams’s Argument against Immortality
Williams’s argument claims that an immortal existence would be a meaningless one, or rather, that we would have no reason to desire an eternal life. But we need to be careful here. What kind of life does Williams imagine us living for eternity? The answer is: a recognisably human life. In other words, he does not speculate on what it might be like to live forever in a godlike state, only about what it might be like living in one that is much like our own current state. This follows the model set down in the Makropulos Affair, where Elina lives a basically human existence, only over a much longer timespan.

As Smuts argues, there is a danger that Williams’s argument collapses into tautology at this point. The notion of a “human” life, if left underspecified, might be thought to include “normal human lifespan”, which would of course lead to the assumption of what needs to be proved. Fortunately, Williams offers some specification of what he means by a “human” life. He introduces two plausible constraints on an immortal human life:

Williams’s Conditions: An immortal human life must:
(a) preserve a sense of self over time, i.e. it must be me that is living the life in question; 
(b) be such that the state of being in which the self will be, should it survive, allows the self to satisfy those aims it has in wanting to survive.

We’ll look at some criticisms of these conditions in a while, for now we’ll simply accept them and get into the nitty gritty of Williams’s argument. That argument holds that an immortal human life could not ultimately be meaningful or significant. Why is this? The reason has to do with the two different kinds of desire that motivate us in living our lives, i.e. that render life worthwhile for us. The two kinds of desire are:

Categorical desires: Systematic desires around which one organises one’s life activities, for example the desire to write a novel, to finish a research project, to build and run a successful company, or to raise a child to self-sufficiency. These are the kind of desires that make our lives (prudentially or normatively) worthwhile. 
Contingent desires: Momentary, ephemeral or fleeting desires, which we need to satisfy in the short term, but which do not provide organising principles for our lives. For example, the desire for food, shelter, sexual release and so forth. These are simply like itches that need to be scratched and then forgotten.

Williams’s argument then is that in order to live a meaningful human existence, one needs to have a set of categorical desires that one wishes to satisfy. A set of merely contingent desires will not suffice because one will simply become bored by continually satisfying them. The problem is that over the course of an immortal existence, one will satiate all of one’s categorical desires. And once one does this, one’s life will be sapped of its motivational oomph. One will end up listless, bored and apathetic. Just like Elina Makropulos.

To put this in formal terms:


  • (1) In order for a recognisably human life to be meaningful, one must have a set of categorical desires that one wishes to satisfy otherwise one would live for merely contingent desires. 
  • (2) If one lived forever in a recognisably human form, one would exhaust one’s set of categorical desires and become bored and apathetic as a result. 
  • (3) Therefore, living forever in a recognisably human form would not be meaningful.


No doubt potential criticisms are pouring into your brain right now. Let’s consider a few before setting out Smuts’s own argumentative strategy. The criticisms break down into two categories: those that dispute the first premise, in particular its criteria for a recognisably human existence; and those that dispute the second premise, and argue that one would not exhaust one’s set of categorical desires (or, even if one did, this would not have the undesirable effects alluded to by Williams). Let’s consider both types of criticism in reverse order.


2. Would we exhaust our desires?
We’re looking first at criticisms of Williams’s argument that target the second premise. Here, I draw on the reasoning developed in Donald Bruckner’s article “Against the Tedium of Immortality”. I can’t hope to do justice to Bruckner’s article here, since it is somewhat tangential to Smuts’s argument, though Smuts’s does end up addressing something like Bruckner’s argument later in his article. Still, I thought it would be worth sharing some of what Bruckner has to say.

In essence, Bruckner exploits the “recognisably human” aspect of Williams’s argument. He does so by highlighting three features of human existence, neglected by Williams, that block the implications stated in premise two. The three features are:

Memory Decay: Human memory decays over time. It can do so in a way that people forget which desires they have satisfied. Consequently, immortal humans could become excited and motivated to pursue things they had once achieved but long forgotten. 
Desire Rejuvenation: Even if human memory did not decay to the extent that immortals forgot what they had once done, they may have forgotten what those achievements felt like or, after a long period of time, may become rejuvenated by desires they had formerly satisfied. 
Human Ingenuity: Human ingenuity, being what it is, we could expect immortals to come up with new projects, pastimes and pursuits that would stave off boredom at least long enough for desires for older projects to be rejuvenated.

Collectively, these three features undermine the second premise of Williams’s argument. The first two features suggest that even if we did exhaust the pool of categorical desires, we could dip into it again without this leading to boredom or apathy. And the third feature suggests that we can actually add to that pool anyway thanks to human ingenuity.

Bruckner’s article spends much time explaining how these three features — particularly human ingenuity — can defeat Williams’s argument. I’ll only pass a few comments on them here. The first is that needing memory decay to sustain the meaningfulness of immortality is troubling for at least two reasons. One is that it runs contrary to the desire of many humans to enhance their physical and cognitive capacities over time (including memory). Thus, suggesting an interesting tension between human enhancement and the sustainability of immortality. The other reason is that memory decay, if sufficiently far-reaching, might violate Williams’s identity condition, thus meaning that the same “self” is not experiencing the various states of being over time. But, of course, Williams’s condition might be flawed and we’ll be considering that in a moment.

As for the other two features of human life — rejuvenation and ingenuity — one has to wonder whether Bruckner really gives full attention to the fact that we would be living forever and whether he overestimates human ingenuity. While one can imagine dipping into the same pool of desires a couple of times, one also has to imagine that this would get pretty old after, say, the 1000th repetition. Similarly, while one can imagine a certain amount of ingenuity increasing the pool of categorical desires, one still has to wonder whether there would be a continuing motivation to do so over time. This is something that Smuts actually addresses later in his article, so I shall be discussing it in a future post.


3. What about Williams’s conditions on immortal existence?
Let’s move on now to discuss the second batch of criticisms of Williams’s argument. This batch focuses on the first premise. There are a number of different forms this kind of criticism can take — some perhaps pointing out that an unending life of contingent desire-satisfaction wouldn’t be all that bad — but I’m only going to look at one form. This form focuses on the conditions Williams’s sets down for immortality.

As we saw earlier, Williams claimed that a recognisably human immortality would have to preserve the same self over time, and that the state of being in survival would have to be desirable to the person who wishes to survive. As such, Williams is looking for a continued state of immortal existence, one in which the same person continues to survive forever. But in doing so he sets a trap since the “person” is partly constituted by their categorical desires, and hence it would follow that such a “person” would cease to exist once their desires are replaced. As Bruckner imagines in his appeal to human ingenuity. One could argue that Williams is overly prescriptive on this point, and that there are other possible forms of immortal existence that might be desirable.

For instance, there could be a type of serial immortality, in which one self or person dies only to be resuscitated in a new form which is discontinuous with the old one. This might be something like the notion of reincarnation, which is found in some world religions. The new self would not be bored even if they were living to satisfy categorical desires that the old self had already satisfied. Williams considers this possibility but dismisses it. How could it possibly be desirable to the old self to be told they will be reborn in a new form, and that this new form will lack any memory or connection to them? It is only desirable if “they” will be the ones living that life, otherwise they might as well be told that a total stranger will be happy in a future life.

Alternatively, there could a type of varied immortality, in which the self constantly flits between different roles and takes on new sets of categorical desires. The model for such an existence is provided by the story of Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, who, according to legend, lived as a man and a woman over the course of several lives. Williams argued that an existence like that of Tiresias would not be desirable, but he was rather sketchy in providing grounds for this view. As Smuts points out in his commentary, Tiresias may have degraded or altered who “he” was over time, but that’s not necessarily undesirable. Indeed, our current lives, in particular our transition from childhood (with its attendant desires) to adulthood is much like this: we change our categorical desires over time, but our desires form overlapping sets such that who we are at any one moment in time in continuous with the immediately preceding moments. And that’s all we need for our existence to be desirable to us.

Smuts concludes, therefore, that Williams has not succeeded in showing why immortality would be undesirable to us. His goal is to provide arguments that correct for the flaws made by Williams. We’ll start looking at those arguments in the next post.

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