Is there any point in worrying about the tedium of immortality?

by Alexandre Erler


Technologies meant to help extend the human lifespan, such as cryonics, or the procedures investigated by gerontologist Aubrey de Grey under the name “Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence”, are increasingly an object of discussion, including in the popular press. A recent example of this is John Walsh’s piece in The Independent earlier this month. He is one of several authors who find it worth telling us that they wouldn’t want to live forever, even if they could. At times his article appears to aim merely at being entertaining and polemical, yet his central idea has been put forward by respected philosophers such as Bernard Williams, in his famous essay The Markopulos case: reflections on the tedium of immortality. In short, the idea is that living forever would just be atrociously boring.

 

Should we draw normative conclusions from such pieces about the development and use of life extension technologies, regarding them as superfluous or even downright undesirable? I want to argue for a negative answer to that question.

 

First of all, even though reflecting on the desirability or undesirability of living forever might constitute an interesting philosophical exercise, this question simply doesn’t fall within the scope of the choices that we are actually facing. Taking a very broad perspective, it isn’t clear that living forever is a real physical possibility. The question of the ultimate fate of the cosmos is still a debated one, but one possible scenario suggested by cosmologists predicts that the universe will at some point stop its expansion and start contracting, until its collapse into a dimensionless singularity. Sadly, this would probably mean more than just the disappearance of beer bellies among those of us who might still be around at that time. Another popular scenario involves what has been termed a “Big Freeze”: according to that hypothesis, the universe will continue to expand forever, but thereby become too cold to sustain life of any sort. But much more realistically, even if we manage to fully eradicate death due to ageing, we will still most probably die of other causes, including accidents or homicide, before we can reach the time when the universe ceases to be life-friendly (assuming it does). The prospect of death will thus remain a reality for us even if the hopes of the most ambitious anti-ageing researchers are fulfilled.

 

Sceptics about the prospect of life extension might retort here that even if we knew that we were not going to live forever, a radically extended life would still become unbearably tedious long before we got killed by a spaceship crash or an unfriendly AI. But they do not pay sufficient attention to the fact that life extension is meant to be a choice: those who do not find the prospect of a longer life appealing could simply decline to use the relevant procedures from the start, or stop using them once they decided that they didn’t wish to go on living any further. Walsh neglects this when, arguing that the awareness of the finitude of our lives is what makes them so precious and exciting, he writes that “[t]o be condemned to live forever is to lose all that excitement” (italics mine). Advocates of life extension are typically not arguing that we should force people to live longer even if they don’t want to.

 

Still, aren’t the sceptics’ points still valid even if we assume life extension to be a choice? Isn’t it quite enough to live to 70 or 80, and wouldn’t any additional years be bound to be dull, weary, and pervaded with a sense of déja-vu? Shouldn’t we leave our current lifespan untouched in order to preserve the preciousness of our lives?

 

Here it should be stressed that even though some people might find the human lifespan that characterizes today’s developed countries optimal, and even though they might feel that any additional years they might gain would quickly become boring and would decrease their sense of the value of their life as a whole, this clearly isn’t everyone’s perception of things. Some people have creative powers, a range of projects, and a thirst for knowledge and pleasure that make their current life expectancy seem extremely limiting. Larry Temkin, who raises doubts about the desirability of life extension in a peer-reviewed article (Temkin, 2008), has the merit of acknowledging this fact, yet he still appears to suggest that most people would not find a radically extended life as gratifying as they expect it to be. Ultimately, we would need empirical data to settle that question, but I want to suggest here that the truth might be quite different from what Walsh and Temkin are saying. In reply to Walsh, my hunch is that for most people, leaving the fact of our mortality largely out of our awareness is precisely a condition for a full enjoyment of our existence, rather than an obstacle. Especially for those of us who do not believe in an afterlife, an acute awareness of our mortal condition can easily elicit strong feelings of anxiety, and a sense that the world is simply unbearable as it is. (In Tennyson’s words: “…earth is darkness at the core, And dust and ashes all that is.”) Constantly preserving such an awareness might perhaps lead a few people like Walsh to value life more, but it would merely prevent most of us from fully absorbing ourselves into our experiences and activities, even the most enjoyable of them, and would colour them all with an undertone of anguish. I personally do not think about my own death, or that of my close relatives, when I listen to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, and I doubt that I would enjoy it more were I to do so. Finally, one might argue that it is in childhood, a time when death usually doesn’t occupy much of our thoughts, that we find it easiest to marvel at simple things and to relish the beauty and poetry of life.

 

As for those who might share Walsh’s view and enjoy their life more due to the awareness of their own mortality, they might still preserve that benefit by committing themselves not to use life extension technologies when these become widely available. Of course, when the time to kick the bucket seemed near, they might find themselves unable to respect their previous commitment. But they might perhaps protect themselves from such a hazard by writing advance directives stipulating that life extension procedures should not be made available to them. Or if this were not possible, they could at least publicly declare their resolution not to use such procedures, so as to make it embarrassing for themselves if they failed to meet it. However that may be, the risk that some people might prevent themselves, by their own weakness of the will, to die when they would ideally have wanted to, does not seem a sufficient reason to deprive other people of the benefits of a radically extended lifespan. Pace Temkin, I would conjecture that many of us would welcome greater opportunities to learn everything that we find worth learning, to accomplish more things, and to spend more time with our loved ones. Some have also suggested that future humans might become able to experience goods that we cannot even think of today (Bostrom, 2008).

 

It is also misleading to present life extension as a mere “bonus” even for citizens of the developed world, i.e. the luckiest people today in terms of lifespan. Indeed, a significant number live lives that they themselves see, in retrospect, as to some extent wasted, and leave them with feelings of bitterness and regret. Life extension would give people greater opportunities to make up for poor starts in life, from the late bloomer who discovers his real passion only in his late sixties, to the woman who finally divorces her husband after many years of unhappy marriage, and despairs of finding a better partner afterwards.

 

Williams, Walsh and Temkin might well be right that an eternal life would be boring – especially, as Woody Allen joked, towards the end. But even so, we should not regard this as having any serious normative implications for the use and development of life extension technologies.

 

 

REFERENCES:

 

Bostrom, N. (2008). Why I Want to Be a Posthuman When I Grow Up. In Medical Enhancement and Posthumanity, eds. Bert Gordijn and Ruth Chadwick (Springer): 107-137.

 

Temkin, L. (2008). Is Living Longer Living Better? Journal of Applied Philosophy 25 (3): 193-210.

 

Walsh, J. Never Say Die: Who Wants to Live Forever? The Independent, 5 July 2010, available online at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/never-say-die-who-wants-to-live-forever-2018292.html.  

 

Williams, B. (1973). The Markopulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality. In Problems of the Self (CUP): 82-100.

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4 Responses to Is there any point in worrying about the tedium of immortality?

  • Alex Dering says:

    I find it fascinating that most of the comments on the mindset of “living forever” being dull seem to depend on the supposition that getting up, going to work, coming home, watching TV, going to bed, getting up, going to work (rinse, lather, repeat), is somehow NOT dull. Most of life is quite dull. Part and parcel of massively extended lifespans would be the simplification of needs that would eliminate the whole cycle of work, home, sleep, work, home, sleep. If you lived to be 200, after 70 would probably be a cakewalk. You go back to school, learn a new skill, or keep practicing the one you already have 30 or 40 years of experience in.

    Your kids (if any) are grown and out of the house. You have probably put some money aside. You get to go back to all the best things of the first time around without having to scrimp and scrape.

    What wouldn’t be to like? It sure sounds better than the current lot: first toil then the grave.

  • Another excellent post on Practical Ethics!

    So far as I can see we are unlikely to have any dramatic advancements in the near future in life-extension technology. Maybe we’ll be lucky with a few quality years added in a decade or so, but I doubt the life expectancy will be doubled any time soon. The last great leap of this kind was due to our (relative) conquest of disease and malnutrition. But now we have come to what looks to be the “natural” limit of our bodies and its much more difficult to conquer the enemy within.
    As such the problem of boredom and mediocre immortality is little more then a philosophical exercise, more relevant to arguments against popular conceptions of the afterlife.

    What is a more pressing concern for me is the distribution that will be associated with this (for the foreseeable future) benefit. I don’t foresee life extension skipping directly to the generic production stage. As with many other high-tech medical goodies, only the “chosen few” will have access and this may well be a problem of justice. As with all scientific progress, these advances rely heavily on public support and public funds and yet it is hard to (realistically) foresee a public Fountain of Youth. The private sector has become quite adept at appropriating the benefits of social cooperation for themselves.

  • Les Redfield says:

    The technologies needed for the prevention of vitually all deaths unrelated to aging will arrive soon after those needed for the indefinite extension of human life. Preventing homicides and spaceship crashes will consume merely a trivial amount of the computational capacity of the (hopefully) friendly AI that the (hopefully) near future will bring. Great article, though, lots of excellent points.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    There’s another possibility of course, namely that at some point over the next few years (or months?) the whole global social-ecolo-economic system unravels and civilisation as we know it collapses.

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