Deconstructing Deathism: Answering a Recent Critique and Other Objections to Immortality
by Mike Perry
First published in Physical Immortality 2(4) 11-16 (4th Q 2004)
Sour Grapes and Sweet
In Aesop’s ancient fable, the fox seeks the juicy grapes to quench his thirst on a hot, sunny day. Finding them out of reach, however, he concludes “they must be sour.”
The thirst for longer life and better health, which would hopefully extend to a happy existence of indefinite duration, is basic to human nature. Just about everyone has been tempted by these appealing “grapes,” notwithstanding that a substantial extension of maximum human life-span, healthy or not, is quite out of reach at present, and always has been. Mortality is a basic feature of earthly life. Yet humans, who seem to be the first life forms on the planet to understand this, are not happy with it. Yes, it’s “natural,” but our instincts tell us it’s still not “okay.”
The roots of our irrepressible immortalism stretch well into prehistoric times, as is suggested, for example, by the burial of artifacts such as hunting implements with the dead. In more recent though still ancient times, the feeling flowered into major religions that promised the sought-for immortality and a happy future existence. Many of these belief systems are still with us and their adherents total perhaps about half the humans alive today. We see then how the wish for existence beyond the biological limits has survived the intractable difficulties that its practical realization has offered. In recent years, moreover, hopes for death-transcendence have taken on new life through scientific advances that offer possibilities of addressing the problem directly. The mechanisms of aging are being unraveled and eventual, full control of the aging process and known diseases is anticipated by some forward-looking people, along with other life enhancements not previously known. People can meanwhile arrange for cryopreservation in the event of death, in hopes that resuscitation technology will eventually be developed, along with the means to reverse or cure any affliction they may have suffered, including aging itself.
Not everyone, of course, can be counted among the immortality-seekers or supporters, even when the new scientific perspective is taken into account. Among those who freely reject the “grapes” of life extension are a predictable fraction who would find them sour as well. These critics defend a counterproposal of deathism, namely, that not only is one’s eventual demise inevitable and final (the grapes are out of reach) but that this should be seen in a positive light (but sour anyway, so not to worry). A recently published essay in this vein, The Immortal’s Dilemma: Deconstructing Eternal Life by George Hart, (1) offers the opinion that “life can have meaning only if it must end” and argues the case against the prospects for immortality on logical grounds. Such criticism is useful, for it points up difficulties that must be solved if immortality is ever to be realized. On the other hand, the possibility that immortality can be realized, and realized as a desirable and rewarding endeavor for an individual life (so the grapes are reachable and sweet and juicy after all) is not refuted by such arguments, as I shall maintain here. (And yes, I must confess to being one of those whose hopes rest on these grapes being in some way reachable, with emphasis, in my case, on scientific approaches to the problem.) In addition to Hart’s own critique I will also consider more briefly some other deathist arguments that have made their appearance over the centuries. But first some comments are in order about what I think immortality should encompass.
Here I am largely in agreement with Hart himself who (along with many others who have commented on the issues) is not only a materialist and a rationalist, but is also sensitized to certain difficulties of an informational nature that, I think, especially must be addressed. Thus I discount any idea of immortality “outside of time” or any supernatural or mystical process or entity taking part. A person, to exist at all, must always remain part of physical reality as revealed and understood scientifically. I also discount any idea of immortality, whether scientific or not, based on attaining a “final” mental state or a limited repertoire of states and remaining in that condition without significant change. That would amount to what is called an Eternal Return, in which one has only a finite number of subjective experiences, even if repeated endlessly—not true immortality in my view (or Hart’s, once again). An immortal life must avoid this problem of stagnation, instead becoming an endless process of personal growth which, among other things, would allow for continual recall of a growing body of past experiences. Endless personal growth would mean our immortal is continually changing—though not arbitrarily. Actually, this will cause certain arguments against immortality that easily come to mind to lose force, as we shall see, though also raising an additional, challenging problem.
It is worth remarking here that a suitable habitat for endless growth would have to exist, an expanding or already-infinite domain. Ultimately it would seem to resolve into whether information encoding memories, dispositions, and a general record of the past characteristics of the individual could be suitably recorded and organized on an ever-expanding scale. It is not known at present whether our own universe, though it appears to be expanding, could support such a process, but the possibility is not ruled out. To reasonably accommodate one immortal being, such a growth process should also extend to an entire, large population of developing immortals, so that each individual is progressing in more-or-less similar fashion. (This would also allow the addition of new, developing individuals from time to time in unending succession, though the rate of addition, as well as the growth itself, would have to be managed to be consistent with available resources. I should also add that the growth process of each person could survive temporary reversals including some losses or corruption of information, so long as overall trends were suitably robust. Basically, a subset of the information taken in by the individual should accumulate without limit and never be permanently lost or altered.) We shall return to this subject briefly later, in connection with the idea of multiple universes, which, if accepted, will be seen to further strengthen the prospects for some form of immortal habitat.
The developing immortal, then, would acquire experiences which would from then on be available for recall. Such recall would have to happen repeatedly, otherwise a given experience would drop out of consciousness forever at some point and not be part of that individual. A growing body of experiences would have to be recalled or reviewed infinitely often over infinite time to avoid stagnation. This, however, will be seen to raise a further difficulty, as Hart also notes, a problem of dilution. An experience or set of experiences might be very seldom recalled even if the recall is infinitely often, in view of the growing body of other material demanding attention. In this way substantial portions of one’s past, or ultimately all portions, may, for practical purposes be lost from consciousness and not part of the “self.” But I will argue that this problem too is manageable or at least cannot be shown not to be. Thus one could either cultivate a tolerance for an increasingly infrequent recall of a given past experience, or actually eliminate the problem by a suitable scheduling of the time spent reviewing personal archives. We shall now examine Hart’s main arguments in more detail.
Stagnation and the Death Wish
An immortal being must persist for an infinite length of time. Hart argues that, during that interval, such a being must at some point find life unbearable and wish to die, and indeed, by implication this must happen infinitely often. So, even if one always changed one’s mind later and again wanted to live, an ordeal of misery and frustration would have occurred, and moreover, must recur, over and over, infinitely often. Why is this? “It is logically possible,” he says, “and given our nature as human beings, it is also empirically possible.” On this basis he concludes that, “[g]iven an infinite period of time, what remains possible during that period of time is certain to occur.” His reasoning is that “[a] possibility that remains open by definition is certain to happen given enough time; otherwise it is meaningless to say that it remains an open possibility if it might never happen even in an infinite period of time.”
My answer to this starts with the concession that, since even an immortal being must be subject to the physical laws that govern reality, the wish to die must remain both logically and empirically possible throughout time—here I agree with Hart. Yet the conclusion that such a wish must occur (and must recur) is still fallacious, because of the assumption of personal growth which, as we noted, is necessary to avoid the problem of stagnation. A person, seen as a developing entity, would not simply be a static construct with fixed probabilities of certain things happening. With a fixed probability an event of given type, assumed independent of other events of the same type, is guaranteed to happen eventually, according to a predictable scheme. For example, suppose a devastating flood has a one percent chance of happening in any one year in a certain locale whose topography is assumed to be fixed. Then the chance of its happening in 100 years is about 64%, and the chance of its happening at least once in 1,000 years is about 99.995%, that is to say, near certainty. (For longer time intervals we come ever closer to perfect certainty.) But by taking proper precautions it would be possible to change the relevant probabilities so that an undesirable occurrence such as this becomes increasingly unlikely. People could, for instance, shore up a system of levees (slightly changing the “fixed” topography) to make a bad flood less likely, and might do so repeatedly or make other changes to further reduce the likelihood.
In the case of wanting to die, one would naturally be interested in reducing the likelihood of such a state of despondency (or reckless curiosity?). Furthermore, the sort of personal growth I envision, which would encompass the whole human—or formerly human—population, should result in ever-increasing, widespread levels of intelligence and capability to deal with problems of all sorts. This is not to say that problems will not occur and persist, and in fact, some problems could become more acute with the increasing levels of sophistication, much as we humans may be said to have more in the way of psychological problems than an earthworm. But certainly the prospect of dealing successfully with the problems cannot be ruled out. So, for example, our immortals could get happier and happier, or more and more firmly resolved to stay the course of living, or both. The likelihood, after a certain point, of a suicidal impulse ever occurring could then be vanishingly small, even though it would never drop strictly to zero.
As an illustration, we may imagine that at some future time the probability of a serious suicidal spell has been reduced to one percent per annum, and that it undergoes a further, exponential decay over time, due to the attention paid to it and the quality of research or personal dedication. With a half-life of 100 years, so that the probability reduces by half every century (though again, it never goes all the way to zero), the probability of there ever being such an episode is not 100 but only 77 percent. A half-life of 50 years will bring the probability down to 52 percent, and one of 30 years will cut it to 35 percent. Going back again to the case of the 100-year half life, the chance of at least one bad episode happening in 1,000 years is very nearly the same as its ever happening at all, or about 77 percent, but the chance of its happening after this first 1,000 years is minuscule, only about a thousandth of its ever happening at all, or .08 percent. With a 50-year half-life, the chance of a bad episode in 500 years is similarly very close to the 52 percent figure for all future time, but the chance of its happening after the 500 years is again a thousandth, in this case, .05 percent. And so on. We see then how a favorable outcome—no bad episodes at all over infinite time—becomes a near certainty with the passage of time, even though there is always some tiny chance of the contrary. (I will add that here we have assumed an exponential decay of probabilities, which makes calculations easy, but such a specific falloff is not essential; many other falloff curves will do as well.)
The same sort of argument could be applied against other “inevitable” consequences such as simple physical destruction. Developing individuals will naturally occupy larger and larger volumes of the universe, or at any rate, a larger volume in some cyberspace storing information (extending ultimately to larger spatial volumes). They thus should be able to make themselves progressively immune to such destruction, through storage of backup information and the like, even though a minuscule and diminishing probability of such destruction will always remain.
Dealing with Dilution
The second major argument Hart raises against the feasibility of immortality invokes what I have called the problem of dilution. Basically, the growing individual must eventually dwarf any previous version of itself, both informationally and, since information requires storage space, physically as well. One consequence is that, in one way or another, an immortal must develop far beyond the human level. It is easy to see how this could create problems, though we must also ask if these problems must necessarily be insoluble.
The main problem would seem to be that of a simple outweighing of earlier information and thus, of the characteristics that defined one’s identity at a particular age. The first century of the life of the individual, for example, will be represented by a finite record of, say, N bits. This archival record must occupy an increasingly small part of the total information content of the individual, say it is M bits, as growth occurs and M increases. (The N bits could also be copied repeatedly over time as insurance against loss, but would still amount to N bits of real information, so I leave it at that.) In time the N bits will be an utterly insignificant portion of the M bits, say a trillionth part or less. It is an easy conclusion that the significance to the individual of the N bits must be correspondingly tiny. In other words, the first century of your life will be as nothing to what you will have developed into—so the early person—including yourself today—will essentially be dead—even though information to reconstruct this version of you still survives. (Doing that, however, would not solve the problem long-term, because dilution would only recur as the new instance of “you” developed and accreted information. Trying to keep “you” alive by periodic recreations, on the other hand, would not work either, because of the problem of stagnation—“you” would just run through a limited repertoire of experiences before dilution once again set in and shut “you” down.)
But wait a minute—must we conclude that dilution would have to be such a problem? Surely not, if we imagine our advanced person has a certain respectful attitude toward the full collection of its past information, and the relationships between the various parts, forming a coherent whole. (This would recount both good and bad times, capture emotional as well as factual content, and be valued for lessons learned through sometimes painful mistakes along with remembered enjoyments.) A librarian does not necessarily think less of the books already on the shelves even when many more titles are acquired. This might hold all the more if the librarian is a scholar who has assembled a well-organized personal library of specially valued books that are consulted and studied from time to time. The scholar may in turn be a historian, and the “books” may include manuscripts and other memorabilia which provide information about historical periods of interest. True, if the library is extensive it may take a while before a given item in the collection is consulted once more, but that would not make it acceptable to discard that item, or necessarily lessen the item’s influence on what the scholar is doing. Finally, if we suppose that some or much of that history is personal history, our “scholar” is starting to resemble our hypothetical immortal. In short, we are not justified in assuming that an infrequent perusal of information necessarily negates the importance of that information in whatever manner it is used, including the complex activities that might be involved in expressing and experiencing one’s identity.
Today we consult books in a library by physically lifting them off the shelf and opening them up, but that is beginning to change with electronic data bases, which can be scanned much more rapidly by computer. In the future it should be possible for us to scan our own memories much more rapidly and reliably than at present, to lessen the time between scans of particular archival material. At the same time, as we grow our thought processes should also deepen, so that more in the way of processing will be required for many commonplace mental activities. This in turn would offer more opportunity for interleaving the occasional references to times past which will better anchor our sense of who we are by reminding us of where we have come from.
It seems reasonable that past versions of the self would “survive” as we remember the events of times past, that is to say, our episodic memories, and this would have importance in our continuing to persist as what could be considered the “same” albeit also a changing, developing person. But in addition to this mnemonic reinforcement I imagine there would be a more general feeling of being a particular individual, an “ambience” derived from but not referring to any specific past experiences. Ambience alone would not be sufficient, I think, to make us who we are; episodic memories would also be necessary, yet it could considerably lessen the need for frequent recall and thus alleviate the problem of dilution.
Another interesting thought is that certain items might consistently be consulted more frequently than others. (Indeed, would this not be expected?) In this way it would actually be possible to bypass the dilution effect and instead allow a fixed fraction of time for perusal of any given item, even as more items were added indefinitely. A simple way of doing this could be first to allow some fixed fraction of the time for day-to-day affairs and other non-archival work (“prime time”), and spend the rest of the time on perusal of personal archives (“archive time”). The exact apportioning of prime versus archive time is not important here, but it will be instructive to consider how the archive time itself might be subdivided. A simple, if overly simplistic, strategy would be to have half this time devoted to the first century’s records, half the remainder to the second century, and so on. (Since there would only be a finite number of centuries, there would be some unused archive time at the end, which could be spent as desired. Note, however, that in the limit of infinite total time covering infinitely many centuries, the usage of archive time would approach but not exceed 100%.) In this way, then, there would be a fixed fraction of archive time, 2–n, spent on the nth century’s records, regardless of how many centuries beyond the nth were lived or how many records accumulated. True, this way of apportioning time might not be much good beyond a few centuries; only about one trillionth the total time would be spent on the 40th century, for instance, around 1/300 sec per 100 years. (Possibly a lot could be covered even in this brief interval of about 3 million nanoseconds, however.) But the apportionment scheme could be adjusted.
A more interesting and plausible, if slightly harder-to-describe scheme would be to choose a constant c > 0 and allow the fraction c(1/(n+c–1) – 1/(n+c)) to the nth-century records. It is easy to show that the time for all centuries will add up to 100% as before, whatever positive value of c we start with. Starting with c=10 will get 10% of the total time spent on the first century, with subsequent centuries receiving a diminishing share as before, but the rate of falloff will be much slower, so that the 40th century will still receive 0.4%, or about 5 months per 100 years, that is to say, 240 million nanoseconds per minute. If we suppose that our immortal settles eventually into a routine in which 10% of the time overall is archive time, there would be 24 million nanoseconds available each minute of life for the 40th century’s memories alone, if desired, with many other centuries getting more or less comparable or greater amounts of attention, and none omitted entirely. This, I think, makes at least a plausible case that a reasonable sense of one’s personal identity could be sustained indefinitely.
In the above examples the greatest proportion of archive time falls to the earlier records, which might be fitting since these should be the most important as formative years for the prospective immortal, thus the most important for identity maintenance. (Memory recall would also naturally occur during prime time; the emphasis here could be on recent events, to maintain a balance overall.) In summary, then, we have considered ways that the problem of dilution might be successfully managed. Relatively infrequent perusal of memories might still suffice to maintain the necessary continuity with past versions of the self, or proper scheduling could stabilize the frequency of recall and bypass the dilution effect, or both. We see in any case that the problem is not what it may seem at first sight. We have no guarantee, of course, that it would not get out of bounds, but certainly some grounds for hope.
More could be said, but the difficulties are formidable, trying as we are to anticipate the possible future before it happens, and how we will deal with our problem of memory superabundance when many new options should have opened up. In that hopefully happy time a “science of personal continuation” should have taken shape to properly deal with the matter. Nay-sayers like Hart try to discount any such prospects once and for all, based on today’s perspectives with their inevitable limitations. We must look to future enlightenment to overturn such summary judgments. I will have a bit more to say on this issue, in the process addressing some other notable, pro-death thinking. But first it will be worthwhile to consider a few additional points raised in Hart’s essay. These again I think offer no fundamental, demonstrated difficulties to the idea of immortality.
Earlier we noted Hart’s bringing up the problem that the would-be immortal may at times undergo a change of feeling and wish for death. While I think we have disposed of his claim that the death wish, to remain an open possibility, would have to actually occur and recur at a serious level, it is also significant that he would allow the option of suicide, supposing such a wish did occur. And here I agree with him, if reluctantly, since a person should have that right. As an aside he seems to think of choosing to be “mortal” as an alternative different from suicide, though he does not explain how. To kill oneself with a slow-acting poison or microbe would still be suicide; would that not hold even if the process took decades and is now “natural,” as in the aging process? Choosing to age and die as we do today when aging can be reasonably controlled and prevented strikes me as a suicidal choice. But, in fairness to Hart, the delay could have significance inasmuch as the subject could undergo a change of views meanwhile, and opt for a reversal or cure. More generally, though, the rather morbid dwelling on a putative, recurring death-wish suggests that Hart may not be so happy with his own life but instead in some degree yearning for an “honorable” way out. Such an outlook is all too common among people, intelligent thinkers included. All such people should take seriously the prospect of becoming joyful geniuses—or of enhancing their already-existing genius and joyfulness—which future advances should make increasingly feasible.
True, many such people might object that doing this would make them so different it would no longer be them, they would be dead for all intents and purposes—the new person would be someone else. But I seriously doubt this would have to be so, and wish I could persuade these nay-thinkers to give more thought to the matter. A change of mind and heart need not add up to a change of person, with the old dead and gone, but can also be seen as a fulfillment of the old, which is thereby helped to become better than before, as it continues to survive, progress, and enjoy.
Morbidity and Its Remedies
The impression of morbidity in Hart’s thinking is reinforced by his opinions on very long life. “In theory you can imagine without contradiction what it would be like to be alive for a trillion or even a trillion trillion years from now. This thought experiment creates its own horror, one that is mind-numbing and nauseating.” Personally, I find the thought experiment not nauseating but exhilarating! What incomparable wonders one might explore in such long periods, what fascinating problems one might solve! What endearing relationships one might have with others of sympathetic but still differing minds, what great good one might do, with reciprocal rewards for the well-enlightened! Hart offers the thought that life ought to be like a book, which has a beginning, middle sections, and an end. In this way one’s life is “properly framed,” says he, and only in this way can it have meaning. A big problem I see with his analogy is that, while you can appreciate the “framing” and thus the meaning of a book by reading it through to the end, to do it right requires some thoughtful deliberation after you have finished the book. This is not an option you can exercise with your own life, if it too must come to a final stopping-point.
The dreary thought that one’s life needs a “conclusion” seems wrong and misguided to those of us who would like it to continue without end. (A life rightly lived is never rightly, permanently ended, we say in earnest rebuttal.) Yet it does beg the question of what meaningful activity would demand and occupy an infinite future, one in which we can and must progress indefinitely, yet continue always to respect and, in some appropriate measure, identify with our much humbler beginnings. How would an infinite existence be made worthwhile and necessary? Certainly it sounds like a tall order, but is it such an impossibility, assuming of course that the necessary technological advances will occur to at least permit escape from the biological limits that now confine us?
Indeed, from one point of view the issue seems transparently simple. Life ought to be worth living. If life is worth living, it should not come to an end, therefore one ought to be immortal. This, of course, overlooks the details of what one might be doing with one’s life as well as such other features as what sort of society would emerge if individuals were immortal. These matters are impossible to second-guess in detail, but some things can be said with reasonable confidence.
Whatever the details of a life may be, they should be such as to produce meaning and fulfillment—including, most importantly, a reason to continue, to find something always new, interesting, exciting, something from which one can learn. This applies to our limited existence today; it should apply all the more in a hoped-for immortal future. Life should be habit-forming! With the prospects for future betterment, I think it will be, both because there should be so much of interest to experience and know about, and because our means to deal with the problems of lack of interest and other negatives will itself be much greater and more refined.
Another aspect of life being worth living is that it should be worth remembering, as we have already noted, this in particular being necessary to retain a sense of continuity with one’s past to reasonably sustain one’s personal identity. Pleasure alone thus is not enough. The nature of one’s experiences should be such that thinking of them later causes enjoyment too—a requirement that, I think, should not prove too difficult in the sort of future that seems possible, even though people today often do not seem to value the remembered past.
Finally, what is worth remembering is also worth sharing. Life should be something shared with others so that all in the end will mutually benefit. Of course it must be the “right” others, which will follow if individuals are well-disposed and develop in reasonable ways.
So we see that commonsense notions that apply to life today, even with its present limitations, lead to the conclusion that immortal life, properly conducted, would be good and desirable. This is also bolstered by considering the opposite viewpoint. Could we learn to make peace with death? Could we see in it something other than final ruin and frustration? Could we find meaning in spite of (or because of) the thought of an eventual, permanent conclusion, a restitution once and for all of all our striving and cares? I think all attempts to do so must ring hollow. Knowledge of one’s mortality and its apparent inevitability is not an easy burden for the rational mind to carry. I doubt if belief in one’s impermanence can inspire much real satisfaction, except perhaps for those who view life, fundamentally, as a burden that ought to end. As one such thinker, Hart is hardly alone; a few of the others will now be worth examining, starting with the ancients.
Other Deathist Thinking
The Stoics, prominent in the early centuries c.e., insisted that fear of death, rather than death itself was the real evil, so that “man must learn to submit himself to the course of nature.” (2) Now, of course, we know that our nature is substantially malleable through our own efforts. The sort of meek submission advocated in earlier times is becoming untenable, and increasingly will be so.
The related, roughly contemporary Epicurean doctrine held that stagnation would invalidate a limitless survival. “[T]here are only a limited number of gratifications, and, once these have been experienced, it is futile to live longer.” (3) To me, this conclusion seems especially specious, even if we limit consideration to a purely intellectual discipline such as mathematics. There are infinitely mathematical truths to explore, each a separate and unique “gratification” to the rightly disposed, with no simple way to characterize them all—Gödel’s famous undecidability results establish this last property about as solidly as one could ask. Again, too, our nature is malleable thus allowing for increases in the “number of gratifications” along with other enhancements, to track the reality that obligingly refuses to be trivial.
Buddhism, also very ancient (and still quite active today) considers the “wish for continued existence” a form of “defilement.” (4) This, then, is a moral objection to immortalism, one with which we may respectfully disagree. Buddhism strongly advocates enlightenment; more enlightenment should be possible the longer one lives. In time, I conjecture, such enlightenment will lead to a recognition of the individual person as a coherent concept and something whose continued existence is to be valued and sought.
Turning to recent times, Bertrand Russell, a leading twentieth-century British philosopher, was firmly convinced of the inevitability of death, based on cosmological considerations. If nothing else, he thought, life must eventually and uniformly come to an end in the Heat Death or “running down” of the universe. Not just individuals were doomed but species, civilizations, and in short, the whole enterprise that we know as life, whether earthly or elsewhere in our cosmos, if it should exist there. Russell was not happy with this state of affairs but thought it must be accepted, arguing that “…only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation…be safely built.” (5) His solution was to downplay the issue. The thought that “life will die out…is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things.” (6) But this too rings hollow in the minds of many of us. In particular, it invites the question of whether painless, immediate suicide would not be a better alternative than prolonged and distracting efforts at “other things.” Russell does deserve credit for attempting to assess reality as it is, and make the most of what to him inspires “unyielding despair.”
It is worth remarking that Russell’s conclusions about eventual Heat Death with its apparent stifling of all life in the universe have never been ruled out but are not by any means firmly established. The recent discoveries of an apparently accelerating universal expansion have raised new, unanswered questions about the ultimate fate of the universe and any firm conclusions are premature. On the other hand, if we suppose the universe is destined to go down, taking us with it, we can ask if this is the absolute end. Barring the supernatural, many would say yes. However, suppose we accept the idea of pattern survival—that “you” could survive as a duplicate of yourself, possibly located in another universe entirely (and no one has ruled this out). Then clearly the options for survival are broadened so that even a hostile cosmology may not be able to end your existence. Life, not death, could be the ultimate outcome for any individual, who must then make the most of it rather than seeking solace in a cares-erasing oblivion. (7)
John Hick, a prominent contemporary theological philosopher, has also aired misgivings on the issue of eternal survival. His hangup is a variant of the problem of dilution. There must be a limit, he says, to how much we can identify with earlier states in which we were very different. In addition to logistical difficulties of the sort we addressed earlier, Hick considers the diary he composed as a fifteen-year-old (emphasis original): “…I know that it is my diary, and with its aid I remember some of the events recorded in it; but nevertheless I look back upon that fifteen-year-old as someone whose career I follow with interest and sympathy but whom I do not feel to be myself.” (8) This sort of dissociation is, I think, very common and perhaps a majority viewpoint among people today, though not universal. (I for one feel able to identify with my earlier person-stages, even going back to early childhood, despite the many changes.) It is noteworthy that Hick says he does not feel he can identify with his earlier self.
It is not likely that any of the arguments offered here would soon change such a viewpoint. If we must continually change so that, in time, our earlier experiences were of someone very different this might indeed prove a fatal impediment, but I do not think it must or will be so. The arguments we have already considered offer a starting point for a more hopeful outlook, but we can go a bit farther informally, something I find inspirational. Let us consider, then, what sort of beings we might be expected to develop into over a long stretch of time, in which today’s physical limitations would not apply.
Likeable, Joyful Immortals All
Clearly there are many possibilities, but I conjecture that personality types capable of and desiring very long survival will not be so varied or inscrutable as to baffle our understanding today. Instead they should basically be profoundly benevolent, desirous of benefiting others as well as themselves, and respectful of sentient creatures in general. They will acknowledge that enlightened self-interest requires a stance with a strong element of what we would call altruism. They will be intensely moral, but also joyful in the exercise and contemplation of their profound moral virtues—for an element of joy will be essential in finding life worth living, even as it is today. These joyful, good-hearted beings, then, will be the types to endure, and will refine their good natures as time progresses, so as to increasingly approximate some of our ideas of angelic or godlike personalities, as endless wonders unfold to their growing understanding.
Beings of good will who are seeking what is right and best and to develop in wonderful and rewarding ways over unlimited time, always with love, respect, and consideration for others, should not find it hard to feel a kinship with past versions of themselves which also had these attributes. Love must conquer all. The conjectured disinterest with one’s more distant past, then, will be swallowed up in the universal affection and regard for persons in general, past as well as present, which must logically extend to versions of oneself along with others. If we are good enough, then, our everlasting survival, as separate though interacting and considerate selves, becomes morally mandatory and recognizable as such by the advanced beings we shall become. So it is this high calling we must aspire to, and it may well be necessary to our survival. And, I submit, being virtuous and considerate will also make us more accepting of our earlier selves, even if they were less enlightened and rather “different,” or even, in more extreme cases, evil and horribly misguided. The bad in our earlier selves can be acknowledged when we are confident it is cured.
In the future there should be wonders aplenty for the searcher and many paths to pursue in a vast architecture of possibilities. So each of us should be able develop in interesting and unique ways, with joy accompanying our efforts, including those occasions when we reflect on where we’ve been before and how far we’ve come, something that should both comfort and inspire. Joy will thus help us maintain a reasonable sense of our identity as time goes by. If this course of development can be pursued, the rich diversity of individuals will, I submit, produce greater benefits overall than if all were subsumed in a vast collective enterprise, with individuality devalued or obliterated. As a possible precedent, we may consider how collective enterprises in our own history, and particularly totalitarian governments with centrally planned economies, have been unable to compete with more decentralized, democratic systems. The separate, developing, considerate, immortal ego, then, should have more to offer all around than some form of “nonself” or a fused consciousness.
In our advancement, of course, we should make use of whatever discoveries and technologies may be applicable. Inevitably this will involve risk but “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” In fact I think our deepening understanding will make adaptations possible that would otherwise be out of the question. The elimination of aging and biological death should be accompanied by increased understanding of the psychological difficulties connected with immortalization, with a proliferation of possible remedies. People should have numerous means to deal with various “illnesses” they may have inherited from the mortal past, along with the difficulties they encounter in the course of a hopefully unbounded future.
1. URL: http://www.secweb.org/asset.asp?AssetID=333
2. Gerald Gruman, “A History of Ideas about the Prolongation of Life.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 56, no. 9 (December 1966), 15.
3. Ibid., 14.
4. Hammalawa Saddhatissa, Life of the Buddha. New York: Harper and Row, 1976, 31.
5. Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian, and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects. Ed. Paul Edwards. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957, 107, as quoted in Frank J. Tipler, The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God, and the Resurrection of the Dead. New York: Doubleday, 1994., 69.
6. Ibid., 11, as quoted in Tipler, Physics of Immortality, 70.
7. See R. Michael Perry, Forever for All: Moral Philosophy, Cryonics, and the Scientific Prospects for Immortality, Parkland, Florida: Universal Publishers, 2000.
8. John Hick, Death and Eternal Life, Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994, 410, as quoted in Perry, Forever for All, 470.