A Problem with Immortality

Well, sorry I’ve been away so long. Things are going well — I’ve just been busy with work and haven’t had a whole lot to say lately. But yesterday, I ran across a really interesting article that I wanted to share with all of you.

Paul Sagar, the author of the article, discusses several possible problems with the notion of immortality and asks if it’s even something we should really want. But what I found most interesting was his suggestion that our innate desire for immortality might not really be about wanting to live forever, but about being able to control when we die.

Christopher Hitchens famously said:

I do not especially like the idea that one day I shall be tapped on the shoulder and informed, not that the party is over but that it is most assuredly going on — only henceforth in my absence.

That seems to be the hard part. We worry that our time will come too soon, when there are too many things left undone — too many people still around that we want to spend time with.

But if you live long enough, it seems that there would come a time when that’s no longer the case. When most of the people you’d want to spend time with have already left the party too. Or when your body has worn out to the point that you’re just ready for that final slumber.

And perhaps just as great a fear is living too long. We all know people who have suffered with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Or those who have become physically disabled to the point that they can no longer do the simplest of tasks and remain in great pain. Death can seem like a blessing in those instances.

Of course, when people talk about immortality, they’re really talking about living forever in a perfect state — good health and access to loved ones. Would such an immortality be a good thing? I don’t really know. In the same quote, Hitchens went on to say:

Much more horrible, though, would be the announcement that the party was continuing forever, and that I was forbidden to leave. Whether it was a hellishly bad party or a party that was perfectly heavenly in every respect, the moment that it became eternal and compulsory would be the precise moment that it began to pall.

I can see his point, though this is something I go back and forth over. Maybe such an eternity wouldn’t get boring. Either way, I think most of us wish we had more time than what we typically get.

Of course, it doesn’t really matter whether we wish we had more time or not — wishing for a thing doesn’t make it so. We don’t live forever. And I don’t have any reason to believe that some part of us will continue on after death. So we’re left to focus on living the one life we do have to the fullest extent possible. Take care of those we care about; take advantage of the opportunities we’re given; make the most of each moment; live with as few regrets as possible.

Anyway, nothing I’ve said here is revolutionary or even definitive. I’ve really just been typing out my own thoughts on this. So, more importantly, take a second to read that article, if you haven’t already. I especially enjoyed the story about Bhishma, taken from target=”_blank”>Mahabharata.


17 thoughts on “A Problem with Immortality”

  1. Great to see you back Nate. I have thought long and hard on immortality and concluded it is not something I desire. As I heard someone quip once, ‘if there is eternal life it would want to be a darn site better than this life’.

    I think one would get very bored quite quickly if eternal life resembled our current life.

    When I was a Christian I used to read the Book of Revelation and think how tiring it must be to keep getting up and bowing before God and saying praise. Then I would admonish myself for such a terrible thought. I was quite relieved when Sean Carroll explained that continuation of consciousness after death was not possible as consciousness was reliant on the continued existence of our physical brain.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Looks who’s back!
    Considering the vastness of the universe I find the prospect of immortality – or at least being in such a position as to choose when I died quite appealing to be honest.

    Imagine being in a position to explore all our oceans. How about being around at a time when intergalactic travel is possible? A tour of the stars might be fun,
    Zoom down a black hole!

    A book called Marrow, by Robert Reed in part explores the idea of a form of human immortality. The characters have developed technology to the point where the body simply regenerates on a continuous basis. Even after severe trauma or accident. Through technology the human skeleton has evolved to become virtually indestructible under normal conditions and normal death is a thing of the past.
    It’s been while since i read it but if memory serves, during the time frame of the book the characters live for several hundred thousand years and there is mention toward the end of a life of millions.

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  3. It seems to me, Nate, that it is one of those concepts that man has devised to reassure himself that he is different from any other species. Certainly above animals, for instance. What hubris, to even imagine one could live forever! When you really analyze it though, I suppose it does tackle the fear of death. I am thinking of my next door neighbour. She’s in her late 60’s and has pancreatic cancer, inoperable. She’s been told the chemo will prolong her life but she’s basically been given a death sentence. Right from the beginning, she has been stoic and even – most days – cheerful, as she truly believes she’s going to be with Jesus. ( and her recently departed father) In this case, I can see that wishful thinking serves a very powerful psychological need – coping with the finality of life.
    Good to see you back!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Hi guys! Good to be back! I’ll try to make it a regular thing.

    Thanks for the comments. And Ark, that book sounds amazing… I’m gonna add it to my reading list right now. I agree with you that there are so many things I’d love to know more about, and I regret that my limited life span won’t let me experience them.

    Being a fan of role playing games and video games, I sometimes wish I could live different versions of my life just to have different experiences and live out different possibilities.


  5. I would be OK with living 5 billion years as long as I could take a 100 year nap every once in a while. This way I would have 100 years to catch up on thus helping to eliminate the boredom. Otherwise count me out on immortality. 🙂

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  6. A friend and I were discussing this very thing one time and she said, “Jesus! When I’m dead I’ll finally be able to sleep!” 🙂 (Of course we laughed uproariously — there might have been wine involved)

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  7. If you just ask people if they would like to live forever, almost all will consider it and many say “yes.” If you frame the question differently, such as “If you had a very debilitating disease that was not curable (brain cancer, etc.) but was very painful, would you want your life extended by one year?” I think most people would say “No thanks!”

    There are conditions applied to this immortality desire, so I think the general claim that people fear death and want everlasting life is bogus as the conditions are unstated. Even Christians are confused on this with some of them saying that if we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior(tm) we will receive everlasting life. Obviously this is a bogus claim. Those people believe we all have immortal souls, so everyone gets everlasting life, it just depends upon the conditions we end up living in. And, while Christians can wax poetically about Hell and why you wouldn’t want to be there, they say very, very little about Heaven and why we would want to be there (other than as an alternative to Hell).

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  8. Back when I was Christian (and that’s a long time ago), I was already beginning to suspect that heaven would be a very boring place.

    I sometimes joke that sitting around the camp fire seems more attractive that listening to that piped in harp muzak.

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  9. Stick to the Great Ship novels, although Sister Alice is a wild stand alone read. The Greatship (collection of shorts) is essential, make that your first rehit. Then Well of Stars, followed by the most recent, Dragons of Marrow. Dragons of Marrow, though, is directly related to Memory of Sky, which says it’s a Great Ship book, but confuses the hell out of everyone. It, too, is absolutely essential for Dragons of Marrow to make any sense. Then there’s a bunch of quite recent shorts, like Eater of Bone, Katabasis, Sarcophogus. These all have a reference to the Great Ship in the title, so you know which ones to get. All good. Many of the shorts are contained in The Greatship, so be sure not to double up.

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  10. Welcome back!

    I can definitely say that it’s true for me as well. I certainly would like to live a lot longer than I am going to, because I think it would be interesting to observe change on longer timescales, but the main problem is that it’s really not up to me. I want to tell death when I’m ready to go, and not get the tap on the shoulder as Hitchens put it. I would imagine this is the thrust for ideas of the afterlife a way of distracting people away from what they are leaving behind and giving them some nice thoughts of where they are going to.

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  11. I have been thinking about this more and more since losing my faith and after working in Senior Living at my last job for several years. I personally still hope there is an afterlife and a God, although I still don’t know what the ideal of either would be anymore. In case there is not I am trying to live this life to the fullest and would be happy if I die an old lady in my sleep and if I go before Aubrie and any other future children. That is the most I think I can hope for.

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  12. Amanda an afterlife and God might be something to look forward to if the being is benevolent, but most religions suggest that a divine being operates more like a standover merchant. Given the downside of being on the wrong side of such a being I would rather cut my losses and hope there is no afterlife.

    If consciousness ceases then that is good enough for me.

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  13. The concept of immortality has been one that have come to my mind a lot of times.

    It would be fun, if I could live through life with different experiences, kind of like living different lives every generation, learn everything learn-able, explore everything explore-able. But this could get boring very quickly as the article points out especially if your friends and family who make life meaningful dies and leave you
    In the Fox series Lucifer, the character Cain ( cursed by god with immortality ) has a problem having a close relationship with people. His reasoning is that the is no point forming close bonds and relationship with people, when he knows he would outlive them and subject himself to the emotional turmoil of losing a loved one every time

    A couple of years back I watched/read ( can’t remember which ) a story about the DC comics immortal character Vandal Savage. Basically in it, Savage through his actions causes humanity to end only him remains
    How would life be if you are the only person left in a party you can’t leave

    I think in most cases, if you have immortality, you would reach a point where you are living without actually living

    Now most of what the article says and the other comments say even mine, is from the perspective of us being aware that our time is limited. But would we view immortality differently if that was the normal state of things?, if we never even had a concept of death, how different would our approach be
    I think if right from the start of humanity existence, they was no such thing as death we would have potentially found a way to make our infinite time worthwhile

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  14. Peter while I believer I always struggled with a God who would create people only for them to end up being tortured for an eternity. Even if I made the cut, how could I enjoy Heaven knowing others would suffer and be in Heaven with a God like that? At my deepest faith I just trusted that God would be fair. For those of you who want to laugh about this subject, I have enjoyed the Good Life on NBC (also on Netflix and Hulu I believe as well). I like how it points out some of the obvious flaws of most major religions but in a way we can all laugh about it,

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