Who Wants to Live Forever?

by

One of the philosophical quandaries of my youth was the question of whether eternal life (on this earth) was actually desirable. A cult movie from the mid 1980s (Highlander) considered this question (well sort of).

While few of us have death wishes, the thought of living forever can cause some queasiness. I suspect this is due to how they consider the question.

It will likely come on the installment plan

Most people consider the prospect of eternal life as something offered right now as a one-shot deal. Eternal, or massively extended life span, will happen by smaller extensions or postponing of the various debilitating elements of aging or illness. You may feel uneasy when considering living forever, but will probably never refuse another five years. I suspect that this gradual postponement (forever on the never-never) is how some may live forever.

You will not be alone

When considering living forever many assume they will be like the character in Highlander. They assume that they will forever watch those they care about grow old and die. In the movie, only the hero (and a few other immortals) could live forever. If medical and scientific advance does offer us eternal (or greatly extended) life, it will offer it to most of us. It will not be a case of a few immortals watching their loved ones grow old and die; it will be a case of not growing old together. It will not just be extra years for yourself, but extra years for your friends and loved ones.

So, Who wants to live forever

I am not entirely convinced on the likelihood of a transhuman/singularity future. However, I cannot see anyone turning down the chance at a “few more years.” I am not even sure it is a good thing for us all to live forever. Of course, I do not worry about me, or my loved ones; it is all those other people clogging up the earth by living forever that worry me.

I still have not answered the youthful philosophical question of living forever, have you? Would you want to live forever? How would the world cope with an ever growing population (no, or few, deaths to balance out even falling birth rates). Would anyone have children if they already had achieved immortality by not dying? What would a world of increasingly old (even if very healthy) persons look like? Is the prospect of death an important part of living?

I know, too many questions for a Monday, but at least it offers a break from “Cyber Monday” bargain hunting.

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16 Responses to “Who Wants to Live Forever?”

  1. Will S. Says:

    “It will not just be extra years for yourself, but extra years for your friends and loved ones.”

    True, BUT, not necessarily all together in the same place, alas…
    [DU: Even in the after life we may not all end up in the same place, alas.]

  2. Will S. Says:

    I think the transhuman dream of living forever on Earth is a desire to build the Kingdom but without God; it’s almost always non-Christians, and esp. those with an axe to grind against the Faith, who dream such dreams…
    [DU: Transhuman true believers do appear to be a very geeky and technocratic bunch. I am not sure if they are hostile to religion as much as cannot comprehend something beyond logic and technology (although I am sure they have a generous share of militant atheists). As you said, the transhuman dream does sound like an attempt to create religion's promise of an eternal life right here on Earth. However, I suspect that even the religious faithful will not turn down "a few more years" here on Earth if offered the chance.]

  3. Cecil Harvey Says:

    If medical and scientific advance does offer us eternal (or greatly extended) life, it will offer it to most of us. It will not be a case of a few immortals watching their loved ones grow old and die; it will be a case of not growing old together. It will not just be extra years for yourself, but extra years for your friends and loved ones.

    I wouldn’t assume this to be true. The technology to indefinitely extend life will likely not be cheap.

    You also don’t deal with quality of life. For instance, if I were a naturally 95-year-old man, with all the ailments that come along with that, do I necessarily want to extend my life? You mention the “5 more years” option. When do you get this choice to add “5 more years”? It’s much more likely that at some point, the technology to halt (or at least drastically slow) the effects of aging will be available, rather than reverse them, and the side effect would be extended life for years of treatment + years before treatment + years of aging after treatment. It’s a different philosophical quandary — the ability to halt or slow aging.

    What also does this mean to marriage, particularly from the standpoint of the religious (like me) who see marriage as indissoluble? Even if a man is in a less-than-ideal marriage, the fact that it’s only until death means that he can tough it out, for the rewards in the next life. I’d posit that the divorce rate would approach 100% for those extending their lives. Even if someone has an excellent pairing, what are the chances that they won’t tire of the person after, say, 200+ years?

    I’d say we’d probably turn out to be more like Tolkien’s elves more than Highlander immortals. I think we’d grow weak and unwilling to take risks, because we would hold on to life and certainty too much. If the technology ever became cheap enough that the masses were allowed it, we’d spend our time doing very little, because of lack of urgency. Death would still happen — there’d be car accidents, murders, etc. — but it would wound those that survive more because death is so rare. I think it would crush the human spirit.
    [DU: All good points. I expect that earlier developments will be of the a-few-more-years variety, however, as you suggest, later ones may be of the start-now-and-never age variety. Despite the human survival instinct, I am not sure how well we would adopt to massively extended lifespan (per the points you mentioned).]

  4. Cecil Harvey Says:

    I think the transhuman dream of living forever on Earth is a desire to build the Kingdom but without God; it’s almost always non-Christians, and esp. those with an axe to grind against the Faith, who dream such dreams…

    It’s funny, though, in their hatred of religion, they build their own. They have their own pantheon, their own prophets, prophecy of a rapture, etc.

  5. Will S. Says:

    “It’s funny, though, in their hatred of religion, they build their own. They have their own pantheon, their own prophets, prophecy of a rapture, etc.”

    Quite true, Cecil.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    The various movies were junk.The TV show was quite good.
    [DU I thought the orginal movie was OK. I never saw the TV versions. I think I saw one of the sequels ("The Quickening" or something). As much as I remember it, it was awful.]

  7. Blue Blazer Says:

    The aforementioned Commenter was myself.There can be only one Blue Blazer.
    [DU Just don't lose your head.]

  8. Rebekah Says:

    The idea of eternity creeps me out for some reason, but the idea of death and the people I love dying one day is also a source of a lot of anxiety.

    As a person who practices the Christian faith, I believe in eternal life (after physical death), but this has never been any source of comfort, unfortunately.

    Morrissey’s thoughts on suicide resonate with me; if offers control – a way to determine how and when it would happen. And if you go first, you don’t have to experience the death of loved ones. Kind of ripping it off like a band-aid.

    I can’t imagine being old is any fun, either. You can’t see, hear, move around easily; your teeth go bad, and your skin droops off your body. Not looking forward to it.

  9. Default User Says:

    @Rebekah
    I believe most life-extension therapies aim to keep you young (no failing sight/hearing/vigor, etc.) longer rather than merely stop you dying. In other words you would live longer by avoiding the last frail years.

    The great thing about an eternal afterlife is that it lasts the same time (eternity) no matter when you arrive. Your time here on Earth does not really eat into your time in the afterlife; infinity is still infinity, and will be just as long if you arrive in ten minutes or ten thousand years.

    While I have no death wish, I do have a certain unease contemplating immortality. It is strange dichotomy: on one hand I want to put off my terminal journey for as long as possible, on the other hand the certainty of that eventual journey provides some comfort (for want of a better word).

    While suicide does give control over the time and place, I cannot see myself not opting for just another day/week/year. I might have control, but would likely procrastinate on exercising that control. While leaving before your loved ones may save you the pain of loss, it merely transfers it to your survivors.

  10. PA Says:

    Here is a pretty cool comment on this subject I posted @R’s three years ago:

    Immortality – what if humanity never gets off this planet, and the sun eventually swells into a red giant and incinerates the earth. Then I believe it collapses to a brown dwarf.

    And it’s not like you’ll break from its gravitational field and find some other planet, with all the time you have. That’s what the flying superpower would be for. And you don’t have that.

    So in the end, … you’re spending the rest of time, pretty much literally, in eternal hellfire. That’s what happens when you make a deal with the devil and accept one of his gifts.
    [DU: That is a cool comment. I love the "deal with the devil" idea.]

  11. PA Says:

    I just saw that I then added:

    “Immortality doesn’t necessarily mean painlessness. The atmosphere’s composition will change. The temperature may get real hot or real cold. The sun will swell into a red giant.

    … and you’ll eventually get thirsty and hungry. Eternally.”

    That was a fun thread. The blog post was a whimsical “what kind of superpower would you choose,” with immortality being one.

    Shouting Thomas soon after roid-raged at our host, and Jaakelli called me a nerd for getting all sci-fi astronomical with the brown dwarves an’ shit. And said something about his own brown dwarf… in the toilet.

    On that note, GNP/Peter asked, astutely: “What if you were invisible, and had to take a dump really bad?”

    Slumlord replied: “Priceless.”
    [DU: The invisibility thing does raise many questions: Would closing your eyes do any good? Could you pick up stuff if you could not see your hands? Would you only be invisible while not wearing clothes (a bummer in winter or walking on gravel)? And so on.]

  12. Rebekah Says:

    I’d be on board with extending quality of life. The thought of being old and broken down is terrifying. My grandmother had dementia and it was kind of sad. She was happy, however…she always thought she was in Switzerland.
    [DU: I agree that a bad old age is not something to look forward to. Dementia, especially, is terrible and frightening for both the sufferer and loved ones. Although the loss of someone through dementia is sad, your "Switzerland" made me smile.]

  13. Rebekah Says:

    Yay, I made you smile. :)
    [DU: You almost sound surprised. Perhaps I need to post more lighthearted stuff. And yes, I am smiling as I type this.]

  14. Svar Says:

    I’m late to this discussion, but this all reminds me of these articles by Bruce Charlton:

    http://charltonteaching.blogspot.com/2011/06/surrendering-life-versus-clinging-to.html

    http://charltonteaching.blogspot.com/2008/09/tolkiens-marring-of-men.html

    Regardless of the first article, I am not entirely sure that death is a bad thing. This excerpt from the third article leads me to that conclusion:

    “The question arises in the secondary world: If Elves are immortal and generally superior in abilities, what is the function of Men? Why did Eru (the ‘One’ God) create mortal Men at all, when he had already created immortal Elves? Implicitly, Tolkien is also asking the primary world question why God created mortal and imperfect Men when he could have created more perfect humans – like the immortal Elves?

    Tolkien’s answer is subtle and indirect, but seems to be related to the single key area in which the greatest mortal Men are superior to Elves: courage. Most of the ‘heroes’ in Tolkien’s world, those who have changed the direction of history, are mortal Men (or indeed Hobbits, who are close kin to mortal Men); and there seems to be a kind of courage possible for mortals which is either impossible for, or at least much rarer among, Elves. Elves have (especially as they grow older) a tendency to despondency, detachment and the avoidance of confrontation. On a related note, Tolkien hints that Men are free in a way in which Elves are not, and that this freedom is integral to the ultimate purpose of Men in Tolkien’s world – and by implication also in the real world.”

    Our mortality allows us to be so great. Death, in it’s own little way, is freeing. There was a time, before modernity, when the pagans of old and the Christians of old knew that there time was limited and they made the most of it. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case due to modernity. People in the Modern Age cling to life and do not accept death for what it is. It reminds me of Yukio Mishima’s critiques on Post-War Japan where before people strove to live quality lives but afterwards, due to American physical and cultural presence, the emphasis moved towards living longer lives. He then noted the prevalence of suicide amongst the elderly. The Japanese tend to have a morbid fascination with death, but they, as religious pagans and/or Confucians willing died during the Samurai era for the good of the Order and during the Imperial Era for the glory of the Emperor and the ancestral land.

    A death with meaning, gives life meaning. I am a Christian as well, but these pagan concepts ring true to me and seem perfectly compatible with the faith. C.S. Lewis noted elements of the Truth in pagan religions.

    Nowadays, most moderns are afraid of death and therefore can not live. One day as a lion over a thousand years as a slug.

  15. Giovanni Dannato Says:

    Our time alive is but a number. Our perception of time is our true span of existence.
    Has not an ancient person who looks back on life as a tarnished collection of repetitious events lived but the span of an infant?
    Has not an infant who lives a single day in exploration and wonder lived forever?

    Ironically, giving in to our cowardice and craving for life yields death.
    Only when we face death and have a relationship with death in our every day lives is our time alive prolonged.
    [DU: Interesting ideas, thanks.]

  16. Death: What Makes Men Great « Patriactionary Says:

    [...] Default User) [...]

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