(Part One, Part Two)
This is the final part of a brief series on the desirability of immortality. The series is working off Aaron Smuts’s article “Immortality and Significance”. Smuts’s article looks at and critiques Bernard Williams’s classic argument for the tedium of immortality, before formulating a new argument for the undesirability of immortality.
In part one, I looked at Williams’s argument, and the various critiques thereof. In part two, I introduced Smuts’s argument. In essence, his argument holds that immortality would be undesirable because it would rob our decisions of significance, thereby leading to a complete motivational collapse. Two versions of this argument were considered in part two. The first, inspired by the work of Martha Nussbaum, held that the finite background against which our decisions are made imbues them with significance. The second, inspired by Borges’s short story “The Immortal” held that immortality would remove the possibility of personal achievement.
The second argument was deemed the better of the two and, reading between the lines, seems to be the one that Smuts’s endorses. To recap, the argument looked like this:
- (5) The possibility of personal achievement is one of the key motivators of human behaviour; one of the things that lends significance to our decisions.
- (6) In order for there to be personal achievement there must be some sacrifice, some triumph over adversity, some increase in level of skill, or something that separates the person who achieves from everyone else.
- (7) In an immortal existence everything that can happen or be made to happen will eventually happen to everyone through mere perseverance or chance; there is no triumph over adversity etc.
- (8) Therefore, in an immortal existence, there will is no possibility of personal achievement (or, more mildly, the possibility will eventually disappear) (from 6 & 7).
- (9) Therefore, in an immortal existence our decisions will lack significance and we will not be motivated to make them (from 5 & 8).
In this post we will subject this argument to the scrutiny it deserves. In particular, we will consider whether this argument correctly identifies the requirements for personal achievement (premise 6) and whether it is really true that immortality would make it impossible to satisfy those requirements (premise 7).
1. Achievement and Immortality - A Complex Dilemma
An obvious objection to the argument is that achievements of a sort would still be possible in an immortal existence. Smuts’s gives the example of discovering calculus. Now, obviously calculus has already been discovered, but suppose it were not (or, if you have a sufficiently fertile imagination, suppose some similarly impressive but as-yet-undiscovered mathematical theory could be discovered), would it not be a mark of personal achievement for an immortal to discover it?
Perhaps, but the key question for Smuts’s is not whether it would be an achievement from the outside looking in (so to speak) but whether it is something that an immortal would be motivated to achieve from the inside looking out. After all, the real thrust of his argument is that (ultimately) immortality leads to motivational collapse by robbing the immortal of the subjective desire for further striving, not that all achievements are (objectively speaking) impossible. And he thinks, for an immortal, the possibility of discovering something like calculus would not be enough to keep the motivational juices flowing.
To support this conclusion he presents a rather complex set of dilemmas. To kick things off, he asks us to imagine that one lives an immortal life with fixed abilities (the possibility of non-fixed abilities is considered later). If one has fixed abilities then, over the course of an immortal existence, one will reach a plateau in terms of what one can achieve. In other words, one will eventually exhaust all of one’s potential. But this means that, when it comes to discovering things like calculus, one either has the ability to do so or not. And this leads to a set of dilemmas, each of which is traced out in the following argument, and each of which lends support to Smuts’s Thesis that immortality leads to motivational collapse.
- (10) If an immortal has fixed abilities, then they will either be able to succeed at a project or not.
- (11) If they are able to succeed it will either be through sheer diligence or it will be easy.
- (12) If success is easy it is no reward and will not provide sufficient motivation over the course of immortality.
- (13) If success is achievable through sheer diligence, but there is nothing to lose through sheer diligence (which is true in the case of the immortal), then it is not rewarding and will not provide sufficient motivation over the course of immortality.
- (14) Therefore, if the immortal is able to succeed it will not be sufficiently rewarding to sustain motivation over the course of immortality (from 11, 12 and 13).
- (15) If they are unable to succeed, then they are doomed to failure.
- (16) If they are doomed to failure, they will be endlessly frustrated by a lack of success and eventually lose the motivation to pursue the project.
- (17) Therefore, if the immortal is unable to succeed, they will eventually lose all motivation to pursue the project (from 15 and 16).
- (18) Therefore, if an immortal has fixed abilities, they will not be motivated to pursue potentially objectively significant projects over the course of their immortality (from 10, 14 and 17).
The diagram below might help you to navigate your way through this dilemma.
Since there are so many premises, there are many potential avenues for critique and discussion. However, the key to the argument lies in premises (12), (13) and (16). Smuts offers explicit defences of each, so let’s consider those now.
2. Why would potential success not be rewarding?
Smuts takes premise (12) to be an obvious truth. He offers the example of the experienced chess player going up against the novice setting on a computer chess programme. This would offer no challenge, and they would soon tire of repeat games. The same would be true of discovering mathematical or scientific truths. If it all comes to an immortal too easily they will grow bored with such projects.
So that brings us to premise (13), which is a slightly more complicated beast. On the face of it, success that is won through diligence and hard work is exactly the kind of success that is most rewarding for us human beings. Think back over your own life. No doubt the achievements of which you are most proud are those that involved hard work and diligence. I know this is certainly true of me. To take one example, I am proud of doing well in school and college, both of which required me to delay certain forms of gratification, and spend long hours studying, in order to achieve good grades and results.
But therein lies the rub. As Smuts points out, what made my achievements so personally rewarding was that they involved potential losses as well as potential gains. In spending those long hours studying, I was giving up the opportunity to do other things, I was running the risk of not doing well and wasting my time, and so on. The problem is that none of these things is true of the immortal. Since they live forever, they make no sacrifices when they decide to pursue something through sheer diligence. They always have the option to give it another shot, to enjoy the short-term pleasures now (if they are not already bored with them) and return to the long term ones later. Hence the “nothing to lose” clause in premise (13). It is submitted that this clause makes that premise more plausible.
Nevertheless, there are a few wrinkles to iron out. First, is it not possible that an immortal would have something to lose if they delayed in the performance of a task? For example, is it not important, when it comes to discovering things like calculus, to have priority in doing so? Newton and Leibniz fought over who had discovered calculus first, would immortals not do the same? Indeed, would it not be more important for immortals since that is perhaps the only thing that could make their achievements personally significant?
One solution to this problem, considered by Smuts, is that of recurrence and amnesia. It is possible that over the course of an immortal life, historical discoveries could be forgotten and so one would get the chance to rediscover calculus at a later time. Of course, this implies some collective form of amnesia which might make immortality undesirable, at least from an objective perspective. Indeed, Smuts specifically says “it is hard to see how the prospect of life as a serial amnesiac could be in any way desirable” (p. 143). Objectively speaking, I agree. But Smuts’s seems to forget here that what matters for his argument is not the objective perspective but the subjective one: would there be sufficient motivation from the perspective of the individual immortal? Serial amnesia, however objectively undesirable, might still provide sufficient internal motivation. If I have forgotten past achievements — either my own or those of others — I may be motivated to pursue them again.
An alternative solution, again considered by Smuts, is that precedent setting could not provide perpetual motivation. If one has fixed abilities, then eventually one will reach one’s intellectual limits and be unable to discover any more new theories and concepts. So, one will eventually exhaust one’s motivational resources even if precedent setting can provide some initial motivation. This seems like a stronger objection to the precedent-setting argument but one must remember the stipulation of fixed abilities to appreciate it fully.
3. Why would eternal frustration be demotivating?
So much for the first major horn of the dilemma. What about the second, the one that covers the immortal who is doomed to failure? Premise (16) states that they will lose their motivational oomph because, to borrow a phrase from Smuts, they will be trapped in “a prison of eternal frustration”. The obvious allusion here is to the story of Sisyphus, doomed to an eternity of rolling a boulder to the top of the hill only for it to fall back down to the bottom and for the process to start all over again. Surely, despite what Camus might have said, Sisyphus’s existence is deeply undesirable.
Again, a problem with this argument is that it looks at things from an objective rather than a subjective perspective. Objectively speaking, an eternity of endless frustration seems rather demotivating, but how can the immortal know that their efforts will lead to endless frustration? They might think that they are on the brink of a breakthrough, and this might provide sufficient internal motivation for them to keep going.
But this seems implausible. If an immortal were struggling to come up with a unified field theory for centuries, and was constantly failing in their efforts, they would surely begin to doubt whether they had the ability to solve that particular intellectual puzzle. As such, they might begin to believe they were doomed to an eternity of endless frustration and so lose their motivational oomph through experience. Their only possible salvation would be if there were an infinite number of intellectual puzzles to which they could transfer their attentions.
4. Non-fixed Abilities and Summing Up
That brings us to the end of the dilemmas posed by living an immortal life with fixed abilities. What about an immortal life with non-fixed abilities? If an immortal could constantly improve themselves, then they would avoid most of the problems alluded to above. Since they would live forever, and since they would constantly improve their abilities, they would eventually reach a godlike status. They would be omnipotent and omniscient, guaranteed to succeed in every endeavour.
But this would lead to a new set of problems. First, there are some questions as to whether personal identity would be preserved with such godlike being — i.e. there are questions as to whether it would still be “you” that was living out the immortal life. Second, if one was constantly in conflict with other godlike beings, then one’s endeavours could be thwarted or erased by them. This would surely lead to frustration. And third, even if harmony between all godlike beings could be achieved, the decisions and actions of such beings would lack significance. Achievements would be too easy, every decision could be revoked and the slate wiped clean. There would be little satisfaction to be found in exercising boundless powers.
So, in conclusion, Smuts thinks that immortality would be undesirable. If one lived forever, one’s decisions would lack the features required for motivation. Either one could achieve everything with great ease, or without meaningful sacrifice, neither of which would be particularly satisfying, or else one would be doomed to an eternity of frustration, which would eventually grow old.
It should be noted, as some have pointed out in the comments to previous entries in this series, these arguments have all assumed that the immortal is one who is “doomed never to die” and thus stuck with living forever. But this doesn’t mean that a really long life, or a life with the option of voluntary death, would be undesirable. Many of us have projects and desires that we can’t fulfill in the 80 or so years we are typically given. Consequently, we’d like the option of living for as long as things seemed interesting to us. Nothing in the preceding arguments directly undermines the desirability of such things.
Still, I think these arguments about immortality are important, and the conclusions reached above (if correct) are significant. For if we did manage to extend human life indefinitely, we would have to seriously address the issue of immortality. And unless living forever was truly desirable, we would have to become comfortable with our own eventual deaths.