THINKING FOR A LIVING: A PHILOSOPHER’S NOTEBOOK 19
321. The incoherence and impossibility of personal immortality. According to The Minded Animalism Theory of the nature and identity of persons, as I spell it out and defend it in Deep Freedom and Real Persons,
(i) human persons are essentially embodied minds and rational minded animals, and
(ii) they’re identical with each and all parts of their “human, all-too-human” rational lives, that is, they’re identical with the individual dynamic, forward-directed, spatiotemporal processes of their lives, from the inception of conscious experience in the third trimester of pregnancy through (if they’re lucky) infancy, childhood, youth, and rational adulthood, all the way to their inevitable deaths.[i]
All such persons are what I also call real human persons.
Many people, including many philosophers, are under the serious conceptual illusion that personal immortality is a coherent notion, representing something that is metaphysically possible.
But in fact, we do not have the slightest idea how the concept of “immortality,” understood as the concept of a sempiternal temporal extension, applies to the concept of the life of a real human person.
(As I’m using the term “sempiternal,” something X is sempiternal if and only if X begins to exist at a certain time T and has an endless or everlasting and therefore infinite existence in time after T.)
So it also turns out that immortality is a priori impossible for real human persons.
I will establish these points by briefly unpacking and then criticizing two of the most influential and important discussions of the nature and value of immortality, Bernard Williams’s “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality”[ii] and John Martin Fischer’s reply to Williams, “Why Immortality is Not So Bad.”[iii]
322. (1) Williams on the Tedium of Immortality
In his justly-famous paper, Williams wants to argue for two theses:
(i) other things being equal, death is a bad thing for the real human person who dies, and
(ii) immortality would be, where conceivable at all, intolerable.
The argument for thesis (i) has three steps.
First, there are certain desires, that Williams calls “categorical desires,” which are desires that are unconditional with respect to rational human life, in that we want them to be satisfied whether or not we are alive to experience them.
For example, rational suicide, understood as the reasonable desire to be dead, is such that the rationally suicidal subject wants this desire to be satisfied even though he will not be alive to experience that state.
Although Williams does not use this term specifically, let us call any similar inherently deaths-related or rationally suicidal desire—for example, the desire that event X happens N days after one’s own suicide—a negative categorical desire.
Second, correspondingly, a real human person, who is therefore also a conscious rational subject, can categorically desire things in a positive way, beyond his own death.
For example, I could intensely desire to be the Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 2057, exactly 100 years after Albert Camus won his prize in 1957, the year of my own birth, and, assuming that no other philosopher wins it in the meantime, thereby become the first philosopher to win the Prize since Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964—even though the likelihood of my actually living beyond my 80s is fairly small.
More generally, positive categorical desires can include the desire to go on living after one’s own actual death, so that many future desires will come into existence and be satisfied.
Third, therefore, as long as the conscious rational subject has positive categorical desires, then it is a bad thing for that real human person to die.
Importantly, according to Williams, categorical desires are inherently contingent in that we do not have to have them, or at least we do not always have to have them.
Indeed, on the supposition that as a matter of contingent fact someone has no positive categorical desires, or that any positive categorical desires that real human person previously had have now been extinguished, then death could be a good thing, and one could have a good reason to die, in that it satisfies a negative categorical desire.
For example, Elina Makropulos, the fictional protagonist of The Makropulos Case, has been granted immortality, but within the first three centuries of her immortal, sempiternal life, starting at age 42, she has also lost all her positive categorical desires.
So then, at age 342, she negatively categorically desires to be dead, and therefore has a good reason to die.
This provides the conceptual segue to Williams’s argument for his thesis (ii), which has four steps.
First, it is a necessary condition of my being immortal that the very same person—namely, I myself, as I am now, with a certain set of memories, and a certain character—goes on living, and does not change identities over time.
The idea that I myself am continually being reborn as a new person, as opposed to merely being reincarnated in a new body, is incoherent.
Second, as time passes, all of the experiences it would be possible for me to have, are eventually had.
Then after that time, necessarily, a state of boredom, indifference, and coldness—in Williams’s nice phrase, “joylessness”—sets in.
Presumably, joylessness consists in having no desires that must be satisfied
either (i) as actually experienced by me with joy, hence conditional on my being alive to experience them (joyful-life-conditional desires),
or (ii) as would be experienced by me with joy, if, contrary to highly probable fact, I continued to live (positive categorical desires per se).
Third, for this reason, living forever would be infinitely joyless, and, in particular, infinitely boring.
Fourth, therefore immortality would be intolerable.
323. (2) Fischer on How Immortality Could Be a Good Thing
According to Fischer, by virtue of his argument for the intolerability of immortality, Williams’s account negatively implies two necessary conditions on the tolerability of immortality:
(i) the identity condition, which says that the subject who lives on must remain the same person over time, and
(ii) the attractiveness condition, which says that the person’s future life must be appealing, that is, not filled with pain and/or suffering, and not joyless—in particular, and perhaps most importantly, not boring.
In view of those necessary conditions, Fischer then claims that Williams’s argument makes three questionable assumptions, and fails to recognize one crucial distinction, hence it is an unsound argument.
The first questionable assumption that Williams makes is that in order for immortality to preserve identity over time, future activities cannot be completely absorbing, since then the subject would lose herself, and therefore her self, in them, and could not preserve her personal identity over time.
But as Fischer correctly points out, it is one thing for the content of an experience to be completely absorbing, and quite another for an experience to be unowned by a distinctive, synchronically and diachronically identical self.
More generally, completely absorbing experiences in the content-sense can also be owned by the very same self at any given time and over time.
Williams’s second questionable assumption is that in order for immortality to be attractive, it must consist in one single activity that in turn would eventually become joyless and boring.
But on the contrary, Fischer plausibly argues, immortality could consist in a plurality of activities, and it is not at all clear that this plurality would itself ever be joy-exhaustible or become boring in the way that a single activity could.
And Williams’s third questionable assumption is that in order for immortality to be attractive, all experiences in the subject’s future immortal or sempiternal life have to be pleasurable, even though they all would eventually become joyless and boring.
But on the contrary, according to Fischer, since finite or terminating lives can be overall very good even if there is a certain amount of pain/suffering, joylessness, and boredom in them, then there is no good reason to think that an immortal or sempiternal life could not be similarly composed.
In addition to these three questionable assumptions, according to Fischer, Williams fails to recognize a crucial distinction between
(i) self-exhausting pleasures, which aesthetically and/or hedonically terminate themselves and are inherently non-renewable for the subject,
either (ia) because they turn out, in the event, to be disappointing (for example, the prospectively amazing New Year’s party that is not so very amazing after all, indeed quite the contrary),
or (ib) because they are complete in themselves (for example, the intense thrill of climbing Mount Everest, that one never needs or wants to repeat, having “been-there, done-that”), and
(ii) repeatable pleasures, that do not exhaust themselves and are inherently worth experiencing again and again.
Self-exhausting and repeatable pleasures can, to some important extent, be relativized to individuals and contexts: what counts as self-exhausting or repeatable for one individual or in one context, need not count as self-exhausting or repeatable for another individual or in another context.
Moreover, repeatable pleasures should not, in general, be obsessively or mechanically repeated, but instead require appropriate distribution or patterning over time.
Now Williams seems to assume that all pleasures will ultimately be self-exhausting in the condition of immortal or sempiternal life.
But, on the contrary says Fischer, there is no good reason to believe that there cannot be endlessly or infinitely repeatable pleasures in an immortal or sempiternal life, provided that these pleasures are appropriately distributed or patterned over time.
So, taking Williams’s three questionable assumptions together with his failure to recognize the category of repeatable pleasures, his conclusion does not follow.
On the contrary, Fischer concludes, immortality or sempiternal life could be a good thing.
324. (3) Some Worries About Williams’s Account and Fischer’s Account Alike
For the purposes of my criticism of Williams and Fischer alike, by “a finite or terminating real human personal life” I will mean a real human personal life, with permanent death at the end of it.
Then, correspondingly, by “immortality, ” as per the above, I will mean a sempiternal real human personal life.
Granting that, then we need to distinguish between
(i) a finite or terminating real human personal life that is relatively short, say, lasting up 120 years in duration as an absolute maximum, but no longer than that,
(ii) a finite or terminating real human personal life that is super-long, say, any finite number of years greater than 120 in duration, including of course Elina Makropulos’s 342 years, and
(iii) a real human personal life that is immortal.
The deep issue raised by this threefold distinction is how precisely we are to understand the concept of endlessness, everlastingness, or infinity when it is applied to the concept of a real human personal life.
Now a real human personal life like ours, simply by virtue of its being human and therefore having a necessary connection with organismic life, occurs in rather limited portions of space, and also has a certain temporally definite biological sequencing related to growth, maturation, aging, eating, sleeping, breathing, blood circulation, heart activity, neuronal activity, hormonal activity, ranges of body temperature, and so-on.
In other words, a real human personal life is inherently filled with spatial and biotemporal parameters of various kinds.
By sharp contrast, the only well-defined concept of endlessness, everlastingness, or infinity we have is fundamentally mathematical, and here there is an important distinction between
(i) denumerable infinities, involving one-to-one correspondence with the set of natural numbers/positive integers), and
(ii) non-denumerable infinities, which systematically outrun one-to-one correspondence with the natural numbers/positive integers, for example, the power set of the set of natural numbers.
We can meaningfully add this dual mathematical concept of endlessness, everlastingness, or infinity to the concept of a sempiternal successive temporal extension, and then understand the idea of a sempiternal sucessive temporal extension that is either denumerable or non-denumerable.
But, supposing that we do have some conceptually competent grasp of the temporal-mathematical concept of sempiternal endlessness, everlastingness, or infinity, nevertheless I do not think we have the slightest idea of how this concept meaningfully applies to the concept of a real human personal life, given the necessary connection between such a life and an inherently spatially-limited and temporally definite biologically-sequenced organismic life of a specifically human sort.
For example, in an endless, everlasting, or infinite amount of time, since every denumerably infinite series has the same cardinality, the very same real human person could visit every single point in any denumerably infinite space.
And even though, necessarily, every real human person, by virtue of their specifically human organismic lives, grows, matures, and ages throughout those lives, that very same real human person would also somehow exist for an endlessly, everlastingly, or infinitely long time without growing, maturing, or aging, like Elina Makropolus.
But none of this makes any sense.
How could the constitutive moments of a single real human person’s life map one-to-one to all the points of any denumerably infinite space?
Does Elina Makropulos need to eat, or not?
If so, what are her digestive processes like?
Does she need to sleep, and if so, why?
Is she constantly exchanging heat, energy, and matter with the environment, like every other compex dynamic system that is an animal?
Is she subject to entropy?
Hence I do not think we have the slightest idea of what the concept of “real human personal immortality” really means.
325. Correspondingly, on the charitable assumption that they are actually making sense, I think that Williams and Fischer are actually talking about a finite or terminating real human personal life that is super-long, and not about real human personal immortality, which is in fact an incoherent notion.
On the one hand, then, Williams is absolutely right that there is something deeply questionable about the very idea of immortality for real human persons like us; but also Williams is quite wrong that a finite or terminating real human personal life that is super-long would be intolerable, for all the reasons that Fischer gives.
And on the other hand, Fischer is absolutely right that Williams’s argument for the intolerability of immortality is unsound; but also Fischer is quite wrong that he has shown anything about how real human personal immortality could be good, since the very idea of such a thing is incoherent.
326. In fact, immortality for real human persons like us is a priori impossible because its very idea is incoherent, and more precisely because its possibility is ruled out a priori by the very idea of a real human personal life.
Our conscious, intentional, caring, free agential lives as specifically real human persons are finite but unbounded, like the surface of a sphere.
Or to make the same point slightly differently, since every such conscious, intentional, caring, free agential real human personal life necessarily has egocentric centering, it is like the shape of the visual field, which is the interior of a finite sphere projected perspectivally outwards from a single oriented region on that interior surface.
Our subjective experience of the finite unboundedness of the interior of this orientable, thermodynamically irreversible, egocentrically centered, complete, unique perspectivally-projected life-sphere—a sphere that is completely filled with intentional contents, intentional objects, and ourselves, fully embedded in a thoroughly nonideal natural and social world and along with other conscious subjects and other living organisms—is as close to immortality as we will ever get because it is as close to immortality as it is a priori possible for creatures like us to get.
Since, according to The Minded Animalism Theory of the nature and identity of persons, every real human person is literally identical to each and all parts of her own complete, finite, and unique essentially embodied life-process, and since each real human person’s life-process thereby has both a definite unique beginning and also a definite unique ending, their own permanent death,[iv] then the very idea of immortality or sempiternal life for real human persons like us is a priori impossible.
Furthermore, and perhaps most poignantly, to hope for personal immortality, or to desire and long for personal immortality, is a tragic conceptual and metaphysical mistake, a serious cognitive illusion.
327. This existentially profound point can be vividly brought out by way of these two famous texts from Nietzsche’s Gay Science and early Wittgenstein’s Tractatus:
The greatest stress. How, if some day or night a demon were to sneak into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything immeasurably small or great in your life must return to you—all in the same succession and sequence…” Would you throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or did you once experience a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god, and never have I heard anything more godly.” If this thought were to gain possession of you, it would change you, as you are, or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you want this once more and innumerable times more?” would weigh upon your actions as the greatest stress. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?[v]
6.431 [I]n death … the world does not change, but ceases.
6.4311 Death is not an event of life. Death is not lived through. If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present. Our life is endless in the way that the visual field is without limit.[vi]
As the Tractarian Wittgenstein clearly saw—his attention having been duly concentrated by the horrors of front line action on the Eastern Front in the Great War—this hope, desiring, or longing for a sempiternally endless or infinite life in effect just endlessly or infinitely puts off till tomorrow what you can, really necessarily, only ever feel, choose, or do right here and right now, today, over and over and over again, until, inevitably, you die: “[h]e lives eternally who lives in the present.”
To hope, desire, or long for immortality is therefore a fundamental denial of your own innately-specified capacity for principled authenticity, and in this way it constitutes a special form of nihilism that Simon Critchley aptly calls passive nihilism.[vii]
So here is where my Existential Kantian Ethics[viii] and early Wittgenstein’s Tractatus meet up with Nietzsche’s later philosophy.
Indeed, in my opinion, Wittgenstein’s thought about living eternally in the present is essentially the same as the one Nietzsche had about “the greatest stress” and eternal recurrence.
Both of these thoughts express a profound dual insight about the nature of principled authenticity and about the self-undermining passive nihilism that constantly tempts us in the form of the seemingly benign and natural desire for an endless, everlasting, or infinite real human personal life.
Correspondingly, it’s an essential feature of a principled and authentic life that we fully face up to the metaphysically necessary a priori truth that when our real human personal lives end, that’s it—and the rest is literally nothing.
[i] See R. Hanna, THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, VOLUME 2—Deep Freedom and Real Persons: A Study in Metaphysics (New York: Nova Science, 2018), PREVIEW, esp. chs. 6-7.
[ii] B. Williams, ““The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality,” in B. Williams, Problems of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 82-100.
[iii] J.M. Fischer, “Why Immortality is Not So Bad,” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 2 (1994): 257-270.
[iv] See R. Hanna, THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, VOLUME 3—Kantian Ethics and Human Existence: A Study in Moral Philosophy (New York: Nova Science, 2018), PREVIEW, ch. 6.
[v] F. Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, trans. W. Kaufmann (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1983), pp. 101-102 (Gay Science, #341), italics in the original.
[vi] L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C.K. Ogden (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 185.
[vii] S. Critchley, Infinitely Demanding (London: Verso, 2007), pp. 3-6.
[viii] See note [iv] above.
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