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The Immortal’s Dilemma: Deconstructing Eternal Life

Some believe that if life must end, life is meaningless. Death means that from your perspective, ultimately, there is no perspective. You become exactly what you were before you ever came to exist, that is, you become nothing. To become nothing is therefore no different from never having been at all. If your life is as if it never had been, then death erases the meaning of your life. The solution to this supposed dilemma is personal immortality after our physical death. (By personal immortality I mean individual consciousness with its personality and personal identity lasting forever.)

Here I will discuss how the concept of personal immortality creates its own dilemmas.

Let us first ask what kind of personal immortality is preferable: one in which the option of termination (of ending it all) exists or one in which the option does not exist.

Many recognize intuitively the potential horror of immortality that has no exit. Thinking it through confirms this intuition.

If by immortality one means eternal existence through time, then this is equivalent to saying one will exist through an infinite period of time. Now, is it possible that in this infinite period of time life will be so unbearable that you will sincerely and unequivocally wish to die? It is logically possible, and given our nature as human beings, it is also empirically possible.

Given an infinite period of time, what remains possible during that period of time is certain to occur. (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.) Therefore, immortality with no option of termination means that it is inevitable that you, as an immortal, at some point will be condemned to live–forced to live when your clear preference would be not to. It is true that in time you eventually will feel differently, assuming that the desire to live also remains an open possibility. But then your desire for termination will also come back again and again.

It is hard to see how life that you wish to end gives life meaning in a way you would care about. In fact, if this condition of desire for termination remains possible (i.e., the possibility never closes), given an infinite amount of time there will be an infinite period in which one will want to die but cannot. This is because a percentage of the infinite is still infinite, and if despair is a possibility that never closes one will experience such despair for at least a percent of this infinite period of time.

Let’s look at the second alternative: immortal life with the option of choosing termination (it doesn’t necessarily have to be suicide; it could simply be the decision to become mortal). The option of termination, to be an option, must mean that it is both logically and empirically possible to exercise the option. In other words, the termination option must be possible at all times (or put another way, a possibility that never closes). Immortality, as noted above, means existing through an infinite period of time. Whatever remains openly possible throughout such a period of time is certain to occur. Therefore, termination is certain. Such “immortality” is actually illusory because the termination option, given enough time, will be exercised. Hence immortality with the termination option does not offer us deliverance from death. If life is meaningless because of death, this version of immortality is no cure because it too must end in death.

Thus personal immortality poses this dilemma: without the termination option, we will face infinite periods of time when we will wish we could terminate our immortality; with the termination option, we will eventually and inevitably face a period when we will exercise the termination option and thus put the lie to our supposed immortality.

You may say the dilemma is false because I have ignored another version of immortality: eternal bliss. Eternal bliss is a kind of immortality where you will always be happy and want life to never end. In other words, under this version suicide or the desire to be mortal again are impossible.

The problem with this version is that, despite its abstract appeal, it’s not clear what it actually could mean. Take your most pleasurable or blissful moment–maybe it is sensual, intellectual, aesthetic, spiritual, whatever. Imagine that moment being extended forever. Experiencing the same moment forever in a very real way will mean that you, as you, will have ceased to exist. A stuck record playing the same sound over and over plays no melody. A note in a melody has sense or meaning only in the context of the other notes in a musical composition. Any single moment of bliss or pleasure can only be truly valued in the context of other moments which make up a life. The simple experience of pleasure or bliss extended forever has no context. The moment may be forever, but the “you” would no longer be you. In any meaningful sense, you will have ceased to exist.

Even if the moments of bliss are placed in the context of a life, it still is not enough if the number of blissful moments is finite in the context of an infinite life. Take this thought experiment. Imagine that you have had a wonderful life. When you die your life will start over and be played out exactly the same. From your perspective, even if this life is repeated an infinite number of times, it is only one life. Playing it over and over forever does not extend your life any more than reading the same book twice means you have read two books or that you have doubled the length of the book. Your life still remains a single, finite life. To the extent that the blissful moments are finite, in an infinite period of time eventually they will become repetitious like a musical composition played over and over.

You may respond that there is another possible version of eternal bliss in which you will have an infinite number of different blissful experiences. You don’t live the same blissful life or moments over again; you live forever with new blissful experiences. The problem with this response is that it is not clear what this version means or, whether it is coherent. It is unclear if it is even possible that there could be an infinite number of different blissful experiences. For example, assuming that bliss is based upon neurological combinations in the brain (or a number of mental combinations in a finite mind), there must be a finite number of such combinations. Eventually the experiences must become repetitive. And in eternity the repetition must be infinite.

Moreover, either you will remember these experiences or you will not. To the extent you do not, it will be like not having them in the first place. (Such forgetfulness would be subject to the same claim as to why death makes life meaningless.) To the extent your mind expands to remember them, in an infinite period of time you will have gone through so many changes that it will eventually be difficult to say that you remain you. “You” will be more like a line of descendants instead of a single individual. Again immortality proves illusory because either your memories or you, as you, eventually will fade away.

Even assuming no forgetfulness and an unbounded capacity to absorb new experiences, each experience will become a diminishing percent of an infinitely expanding circle of experience. Over time, each experience becomes less significant, literally to an infinitesimal degree. If each experience becomes infinitesimal, how can each experience retain much meaning? If death makes a normal life of seventy or eighty years meaningless, how meaningful will those same seventy or eighty years be as an infinitesimal point in an eternity of experience? (Seventy years out of a thousand seems somewhat inconsequential, out of a million, billion, trillion–virtually nonexistent.)

In other words, the dilemma is that, to the extent it remains possible for you to evolve to encompass an infinite variety of new experiences, you will evolve into someone so different it can no longer be said to be you. Alternatively, to the extent it is not possible for your finite mind to encompass an infinite variety of experiences, given an infinite period of time your life will become infinitely repetitive, and in that sense you will be like the same note being played forever or the same book being read over and over. In either scenario, “you” will not be immortal; either way you, as you, will cease to be. And finally, to the extent you have an infinitely expanding circle of experience, how can your initial life span of a normal life be made more meaningful with time instead of less?

Let us go back to the dilemma of meaninglessness that final death supposedly poses. Many of us recoil in horror when we imagine being nothing. But this “thought experiment” is contradictory. Trying to imagine experiencing yourself as nothing is like trying to imagine being able to see beyond your visual field. There is literally nothing to experience or imagine. But a “thought experiment” about personal immortality does not lead to contradiction. 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.

You may finally exclaim that this all misses the point because “true” immortality is not in time. True immortality means being timeless, or outside of time, just as Plato’s forms or a mathematical equation are timeless. But to be “timeless” means not to have a life as we understand it. By life, we mean living. And by living, we mean thinking, feeling, acting–which are all in time. To be timeless or outside of time is to be static, and such a “life” would be meaningless, if not incoherent for a conscious being. In fact, it would be difficult to distinguish such a “life” from being dead.

Perhaps there are other versions of immortality that I have missed. (Reincarnation does not fit the definition of personal immortality that I have considered. Interestingly, Hinduism and Buddhism see the cycle of reincarnation not as something that offers meaning to life but something to be escaped. What is supposed to escape is not clear, at least to me, but it is certainly not an individual consciousness with its own personality and identity.)

Yet it appears when it is all said and done, there is no version of personal immortality that can supply a meaningful life that a mortal existence could not also supply. In fact, it may be that only a finite life can be meaningful because only a finite life can be a story that has a beginning, middle and end. Death is what frames our life, and only a framed life can have meaning. Indeed, it is precisely the prospect of death that gives many of our values, such as courage and compassion, meaning. It is our mortality that makes life precious and intentional killing especially wrong.

Life is meaningful when it is lived; that is enough. To ask for more is almost greedy. Just as wine is good if only the glass is to become empty, life can have meaning only if it must end.