Saturday, January 10, 2015

Longer Lives and the Alleged Tedium of Immortality

Bernard Williams - argued that immortality would be tedious

Back in 1973, Bernard Williams published an article about the desirability of immortality. The article was entitled “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality”. The article used the story of Elina Makropulos — from Janacek’s opera The Makropulos Affair — to argue that immortality would not be desirable. According to the story, Elina Makropulos is given the elixir of life by her father. The elixir allows Elina to live for three hundred years at her current biological age. After this period has elapsed, she has to choose whether to take the elixir again and live for another three hundred. She takes it once, lives her three hundred years, and then chooses to die rather than live another three hundred. Why? Because she has become bored with her existence.

Of course, this is just a story, but Williams thinks that it makes a serious point. He argues that a meaningful life, one that is of value to the one that lives it, is one that focuses on the fulfillment of certain categorical desires. He worries that an immortal life would lead to the exhaustion of such desires, which would in turn lead to tedium and boredom. It is this exhaustion of categorical desires that he feels is captured so well by the story of Elina Makropulous.

Williams’s article is justly famous. Like all of his work, it is well-written and has a provocative thesis. It is also, for better or worse, the starting point for all contemporary discussions of the desirability of immortality. Many have been persuaded by its arguments. They think Williams does indeed say something important about the nature of immortality. I have historically counted myself as one of those people (sort of - see my earlier series of posts on this topic). But perhaps we need to re-evaluate? Perhaps Williams’s argument says nothing at all about the desirability of immortality?

That’s the claim put forward by Samuel Scheffler in his book Death and the Afterlife. Scheffler argues that Williams is wrong about the desirability of immortality, but may have nevertheless highlighted a paradox at the heart of the human condition. I want to examine Scheffler’s argument in this post.

1. Williams’s Tedium of Immortality Argument
I have to start by reviewing Williams’s tedium of immortality argument. I don’t want to spend too long on this since I’ve written about it at length before (and, since I am not immortal, I probably shouldn’t waste the time I have).

Let's assume that most people fear their deaths and would prefer not to die. That is an assumption that guides Williams’s analysis. In preferring not to die, Williams further assumes that they would want to live forever, i.e. to have an existence that cannot come to an end. This is what he means by an immortal life. Such a life should be distinguished from one that is merely very long (e.g. 1,000 years) or super-long (e.g. 1,000,000 years). This distinction has important repercussions for assessing the impact of Williams’s argument on projects aimed at extending human lifespan. I’ll return to this point at the end of the post.

In imagining a life without end, what is it that people would be imagining? Williams suggests that they would imagine a type of existence that satisfies two conditions:

Williams’s Conditions: An immortal human life must:
(a) preserve a sense of self over time, i.e. it must be the same self 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.

As regards the second of these conditions, Williams focuses on the types of desire that motivate us to continue living. He claims that there are two general classes of such desire:

Conditional/Contingent Desires: These are desires that are ephemeral and fleeting in nature, often tied to (or conditional upon) the limitations of our biology and our continued survival, e.g. the desire for food, shelter, sex and so forth.
Categorical Desires: These are more significant desires. They are akin to life projects or plans. They are desires around which our self-worth is organised, e.g. the desire to write a great novel, raise happy and successful children, make important scientific discoveries, and so forth. 

Williams claims that the satisfaction of contingent desires, while important, is not really what makes life worth living. It is the satisfaction of categorical desires that does that. Since they are the focal point of what we do on a daily basis, it is their satisfaction that makes us want to live. Williams’s worry is that there are only so many categorical desires that one self can pursue. In the course of an immortal life, you would end up pursuing and satisfying every achievable categorical desire. Eventually, you would have nothing left to make your life worth living. You would be bored, listless and tired of life.

To put it more formally:

  • (1) In order for life to worth living, one must have a set of categorical desires that one wishes to satisfy, i.e. a set of life projects around which one’s sense of self and value is organised. 
  • (2) If one lives an immortal life, one would exhaust the set of categorical desires and become bored and apathetic as a result. 
  • (3) Therefore, it would not be worth living an immortal life.

There are several criticisms one could make of this argument. I have pursued some of them in the past. Here, I want to focus on the second premise. For it is there that Scheffler’s concerns are directed. He claims that the arguments and examples Williams adduces in support of premise (2) are not really about immortality at all. Instead, if those arguments and examples are persuasive, they have a much wider significance.

2. Scheffler’s Criticisms
Scheffler’s critique comes in two parts. The first part argues that Williams’s argument applies just as much to a very long or super-long life as it does to an immortal one. The second part argues that — despite its irrelevance to the issue of immortality — Williams’s argument nevertheless succeeds in saying something important about the human condition.

Let’s focus on the first part of the critique. Recall that Williams uses the story of Elina Makropulos to defend his claim that an immortal life would lead to the exhaustion of categorical desires. In the story, Elina grows tired of her life after 342 years, having seen and experienced enough of the world. The first thing to acknowledge here is that no one really knows if Elina’s desire to die after 342 years is representative of what an actual human who had lived for 342 years would desire. Since no has lived that long, we are in the realm of speculation and fiction. Nevertheless, we have to also acknowledge that Williams’s argument is not dependent on this particular story. His claim is merely that we would grow tired of our lives at some point, whether that is at 342 years or 342,000 years or 3,420,000 years. This is linked to his in-principle claim that the number of categorical desires that can be pursued by one individual are limited and so will be exhausted at some point in time. The Makropulos story is simply a neat illustration of this claim. There are other fictional examples such as Robert Heinlein’s story of Lazarus Long, who lived for over 2,000 years before deciding that he wanted to die.

As it happens, the claim that the pool of categorical desires open to an individual is limited is something that Williams has been challenged on in the past. Donald Bruckner, for example, has argued that more members could be added to the set, or that there could be a renewal of interest in long-forgotten categorical desires. But let’s set this critique to the side and assume that Williams is right. If he is right, does this tell us anything about the undesirability of immortality? No; not according to Scheffler. As he points out, Williams’s complaint about the exhaustion of categorical desires has nothing to do with immortality per se. Rather, it has to do with all abnormally long life spans. If the pool of categorical desires is limited, then it will be exhausted in a finite period of time, not in one that never comes to an end.

So much for the first part of Scheffler's critique. It is the second part that is more interesting. It challenges us to think a little more deeply about why it is — according to Williams — that Elina Makropulos grows tired of her life. To do this we need to draw a distinction between two things: (i) the set of possible categorical desires; and (ii) the set of categorical desires possible for a particular self. The first set may be relatively expansive, possibly unlimited; the second set is much more constrained. And it is the second set that Williams appeals to in his argument. To be a self, a person must have a relatively fixed set of characteristics over time. For example, a shared set of memories, beliefs and desires. Williams’s point is that the set of categorical desires that it is possible for a self with a relatively fixed set of characteristics to meaningfully pursue will exhaust itself. They will run out of categorical desires that are appropriately linked to their sense of self. It is only by changing the self that the problem is avoided.

And this is where Scheffler thinks that Williams captures something fundamental to the human condition. He thinks Williams captures a tension between having a constant character (a constant sense of self) and the ability to be absorbed in or engaged by one’s activities. The problem is that becoming absorbed in one’s activities allows one to lose the sense of self. Think about entering a true “flow” state: there is nothing but the activity and the experience of the activity. The self disappears. A permanent state of such absorption would lead to the death of the self. Therefore, if we wish to maintain a sense of self, we must retreat from total absorption. But if we do this, we must recognise the limitation on the set of possible categorical desires that can be pursued by a constant self. And this is a problem because the sense of a continued self is what motivates much of the desire to continue living. As Scheffler puts it:

We want to live our lives and be engaged in the world around us. Categorical desires give us reasons to live, and they support such engagement. But when we are engaged, and so succeed in leading the kinds of lives we want, then the way we succeed is by losing ourselves in absorbing activities. When categorical desire dies, as it must do eventually if we have sufficient constancy of character to define selves worth wanting to sustain in the first place, then we will be left with ourselves, and we ourselves are, terminally, boring. The real problem is that one’s reasons to live are, in a sense, reasons not to live as oneself.   
(Scheffler 2013, 94-95)

This is the paradox at the heart of the human condition: a desire to live as oneself, but an incompatibility between that desire and a very long life as oneself.

3. Some Thoughts on Scheffler’s Argument
Is Scheffler’s second critique any good? Does he really raise an important point about the human condition? I want to close with three observations. The first is pretty simple: there is nothing in any of this that calls into question projects to extend the human lifespan beyond the current upper limits (say, about 115 years). Scheffler and Williams are talking about very long or super long lives, not about the kinds of lives we currently live. They may be right that we would eventually grow tired of ourselves, but that shouldn’t necessarily stop us from trying to see whether they are right.

The second observation is that Scheffler’s critique concedes a lot of ground to Williams’s original argument. If you reject Williams’s key concepts, you might be less persuaded by what Scheffler has to say. One thing that niggles with me is the concept of self, and constancy of the self, that seems to be operating in this discussion. Both Scheffler and Williams assume that the self must be pretty constant over time, otherwise the self dies. But it’s not clear to me that this must be true. One popular theory of self-identity is the Lockean or psychological theory. According to this, in order for a particular person to remain the same over time, all that is required is that the different temporal stages of that person share, overlapping psychological states. So, for example, in order for the me-today to be the same self as the me-tomorrow, the me-tomorrow must remember the me-today, and share some of my beliefs and desires. But there is no requirement that the set of shared psychological states remain absolutely constant over time. The me-in-fifty-years-time may remember nothing about the me-today, but that wouldn’t necessarily rule out a continued sense of self. Each link in the chain between me-in-fifty-year and me-today may share overlapping characteristics, even if the me-today shares nothing with the me-in-fifty-years. That wouldn’t compromise the sense of self over time, nor the desire of that self, at all times, to continue living. Of course, it may still be true that the pool of categorical desires will be exhausted, but it needn’t be because we grow tired of ourselves.

The third observation is perhaps more important. It is that Scheffler and Williams may nevertheless say something important about the value of having a constant sense of self. I value my sense of self. Having certain projects and plans, and weaving them into some kind of coherent narrative is something that I strive to do with my life. But maybe this strife is misguided. One of the recurring themes of mystics and gurus down through the ages is that true enlightenment comes from the abandonment of the self. This insight has often been linked to religious ideologies, but there is nothing intrinsically religious about it. Indeed, this is the central thesis of Sam Harris’s book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, which is all about how secularists and atheists can embrace spiritual practice. And it may be the case that the insight gained from such practice, specifically the loss of self, will reveal that the desire for continued, perpetual survival of that self is also misguided. It may be that the pure momentary absorption in experience will call into question the value of a self.

What this means for the desirability of immortality is another question, and Scheffler has an argument of his own about that. I will take a look at that argument another time.

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