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Human Life and the Quest for Immortality

Human beings have long desired immortality. In his book on the topic, cleverly-titled Immortality, Stephen Cave argues that this desire has taken on four distinct forms over the course of human history. In the first, people seek immortality by simply trying to stay alive, either through the help of magic or science. In the second, people seek resurrection, sometimes in the same physical form and sometimes in an altered plane of existence.

In the third, people seek solace through the metaphysical/religious concept of the soul as an entity that houses the essence of our personalities and which will live on beyond the death of our physical bodies. And in the fourth, people seek immortality through their work or artistic creations.

With the exception of the last of these forms, most versions of the quest for immortality share the belief that the immortal existence of the self — i.e. the human person — is something worth pursuing. But some philosophers reject this notion. They do so not because they wish to die or think that death is a good thing, but because they think that without death there is no possibility of a recognisably human life. That is to say: they believe that the quest for an immortal human life is incoherent.

One such philosopher is Samuel Scheffler. In his recent(ish) book Death and Afterlife, Scheffler tries to defend the claim that an immortal life would be no life at all. More precisely, he tries to argue that temporal scarcity is a condition of value in human life, and that without the “threat” of death, it would be difficult to make sense of our existence. In this post, I will try to outline Scheffler’s argument and consider its implications for those who seek to promote radical life extension.

1. What is an immortal life anyway?
One thing I have noticed in the debate about life extension and immortality is a tendency for the participants to talk past one another. This is chiefly because the participants often conceive of an “immortal life” or the quest for “immortality” in very different ways. It’s important that we try to avoid this mistake here.

Let’s suppose that there are four types of human life that we could be arguing about (I am aware that this fourfold distinction doesn’t exhaust the possibilities, but I think it suffices for now):

Ordinary Contingent Human Life: This is the kind of life we all currently lead. We are organic beings, whose bodies are susceptible to injury, disease and decay. We can stave off some of these existential threats, but eventually our bodies will give up and we will die. At present, we can expect to live (roughly) between 80-100 years. With medical advancements we might expect to increase that life expectancy (maybe even up to 150 years), but still we will eventually die.
Necessarily Immortal Human Life: This the kind of life in which we continue to exist in something roughly equivalent to our current form, but we do so forever, without the risk or possibility of death. In other words, it is the kind of life in which we must continue to exist, irrespective of our wishes.
Contingently Immortal Human Life (Type 1): This is the kind of life in which we continue to exist in something roughly equivalent to our current form, and we do so with the continuing risk of death by injury or, maybe, some diseases. In other words, our bodies no longer decay or degrade over time, but they are still vulnerable to some external existential threats (perhaps the main one being the risk of fatal attack from other human beings).
Contingently Immortal Human Life (Type 2):: This is the kind of life in which we continue to exist in something roughly equivalent to our current form, without the risk of death by injury or disease, but with the periodic option of ending our lives. In other words, it is the kind of life in which we are free from all existential threats, apart from “threats” realised by our own volition.

Let’s agree, for the sake of argument, that we want to escape the limitations of the first option and live forever. Which of the remaining three options do we hope for? In my experience, most life extensionists and scientifically-inclined immortalists argue for something like the third and fourth options, i.e. lives of indefinite duration with the lingering possibility of death. Most of them don’t really consider the second option. On the other hand, many religious believers seem more committed to the second possibility. The most obvious examples of this are those that believe in the traditional conceptions of heaven and hell, which often seem to require involuntary immortality.

So which type of existence is the subject of Scheffler’s argument? The answer is the second. It is the necessarily immortal human life that he deems to be an incoherent concept. This immediately limits the audience for his argument. Most life extensionists will be non-plussed by what he has to say because it doesn’t touch upon the sort of life they wish to live; religious believers (at least, those who are committed to the idea of immortality) will more plussed about what he has to say.

I think it is important to acknowledge these limitations at the outset as it helps to avoid potential misinterpretations of Scheffler’s argument. That said, in making the case against the necessarily immortal life, Scheffler says some things about temporal scarcity and conditions of value that could have a (lesser) effect on contingently immortal lives. This is something worth bearing in mind.

2. The Argument for Incoherence
With that clarification out of the way, we can proceed to address Scheffler’s argument for the incoherence of a necessarily immortal life. Scheffler doesn’t present this with any degree of formality. Instead, he adduces a number of considerations and tries to informally draw out some conclusions. I’ll try to adopt a more formal approach here. I take it that the argument is something like this:
 

  • (1) Much of what is central to our conception of human life (including our conception of value in life) tacitly assumes that that life will come to an end, and/or is persistently vulnerable to existential threat.
  • (2) A necessarily immortal life is one that does not come to an end and is not persistently vulnerable to existential threat.
  • (3) Therefore, much of what is central to our conception of human life (including our conception of value) would be lost if we lived necessarily immortal lives.
  • (4) If a form of existence entails the loss of much of what is central to our conception of human life, it is not clear that that form of existence can be deemed “human”.
  • (5) Therefore, there may be no such thing a necessarily immortal human life (i.e. the concept of a necessarily immortal human life may be incoherent).


The argument can be dragged in different directions once this main conclusion is reached. In particular, it can be used to support the claim that we ought not to desire a necessarily immortal life, or, perhaps more interestingly, to argue against certain religious doctrines that presuppose such an existence (Brian Ribeiro does this in his article “The Problem of Heaven”).

But I am not too interested in those possibilities. I am more interested in how Scheffler defends the main premises of the argument. In particular, I am interested in how he defends premise (1). I take it that the rest of the argument is relatively uncontroversial. Premise (2) is true by definition. (3) looks to be a valid conclusion from (1) and (2). (4) might be controversial because it is vague, but that can be corrected by having a more detailed account of what is taken from the concept of human life by immortality. That is something that the defence of (1) helps to provide. And, finally, (5) also looks to be a reasonable inference from (3) and (4).

So let’s consider the defence of premise (1). In the book, Scheffler offers three reasons in support of premise (1). The first is:
 

  • (6) Our conception of life, and of success in life, is bound up with the notion that life has stages that come to an end.


Scheffler provides more detail on what he is talking about in the book. He notes how the standard conception of a human life has a finite duration, i.e. a beginning (birth) and an end (death). Between these two endpoints, the living person passes through a number of stages, childhood, adolescence, adulthood etc.. These stages, and their durations, vary somewhat from culture to culture. Nevertheless, all cultures share the notion that life is broken down into distinct stages and that these stages come to an end. More importantly, our sense of accomplishment and satisfaction is often intimately linked to our conception of these stages. Thus, what counts as an achievement for a child (first words, learning to read) would not count as an achievement for an adult, and vice versa. As Scheffler puts it:
 

Our collective understanding of the range of goals, activities, and pursuits that are available to the person, the challenges that he faces, and the satisfactions that he may reasonably hope for are all indexed to these stages. The very fact that the accomplishments and satisfactions of each stage count as accomplishments and satisfactions depends on their association with the stage in question…” 
(Scheffler 2013, p 96)


Scheffler’s point is that this division of life into stages, each with its own characteristic virtues and vices would be lost if we lived necessarily immortal lives.

So much for the first reason. The second reason Scheffler offers is linked to the concepts of loss, illness, injury and so on:

  • (7) Concepts such as loss, illness, injury, harm, health, gain, security, safety (and so on), all of which are central to how we understand value in life, derive a good deal of their content from the assumption that life is temporally limited.

This is probably a more significant claim than the first since it focuses directly on things that are deemed to be of value (or disvalue) in human life. Scheffler doesn’t offer much in the way of support for this claim. He simply points out that much of human life is spent trying to avoid things like loss, illness, injury and harm, and trying to pursue health, gain, security and safety. And then adds that these concepts “derive much of their content from our standing recognition that our lives are temporally bounded, that we are subject to death at any moment, and that we are certain to succumb to it in the end.” (p. 97) Since that temporal boundedness is lost in a necessarily immortal life it follows that such a life would consist in a radically altered set of values. (It should also be added that if you are necessarily immortal you would presumably be free from many physical limitations and needs, e.g. hunger and thirst).

Arising from this is Scheffler’s third reason for supporting premise (1). This reason has to do with human planning and decision-making:

  • (8) Much of human decision-making and planning only make sense against a background assumption of temporal scarcity.

As I say, this arises from the same set of considerations as the previous reason, and so it may not be fair to treat it as a distinct ground for supporting premise (1). Still, I think it is worth separating it out because the planning and making of decisions (sacrifices, choices etc.) is central to human existence and may well be radically altered in a necessarily immortal life. The reasoning would be, roughly, that whenever we plan or decide to do something we do so on the basis that we must “give up” something (what economists call the “opportunity cost”). The presence of that opportunity cost lends some normative significance to our decision-making and adds to our sense of urgency and motivation. These things would be lost if we lived forever because we would always have a second chance (or a third or fourth or fifth…). Some people might welcome this fact, but even still it would make for a very different type of existence. (I wrote about this argument in much more detail before).

3. Concluding Thoughts
So what are we to make of all this? Let me close with two reflections on Scheffler’s argument. First, I accept most of Scheffler’s argument and I think it says something important about the desire for a (necessarily) immortal life. For example, I accept that a necessarily immortal life would be free from many of the limitations that currently shape our conception of what is or is not of value. Consequently, I am largely persuaded by his use of (7) and (8). I am less persuaded by his use of (6). It seems conceivable to me that an immortal life could still be broken down into stages of finite duration. Maybe it would be more difficult to then associate those stages with distinctive accomplishments and satisfactions, but sufficient ingenuity may make it possible.

‚ÄčThat said, I believe this to be a minor point. The larger point is that a necessarily immortal life would be radically different from what we currently have, and there is no doubt that much of our current understanding of value would be altered. Although this might not make the desire for a necessarily immortal life incoherent, it may make it silly or misconceived: such a life cannot hope to preserve the things we value about our present lives.

Second, although I accept he was not arguing about contingently immortal lives, I think it is worth asking how much of his argument would carry over to such lives. It seems fair to say that some of it would. After all, a contingently immortal life would reduce at least some of the existential threats that Scheffler thinks are essential to our conception of a human life. For instance, it would force some restructuring of the stages of life and their associated accomplishments and satisfactions (I considered this before). Likewise, with a contingently immortal life of the second type (i.e. one free from all involuntary existential threats) things like loss, illness, harm, safety, health and so on would be deeply affected. How exactly they would be affected is difficult to say.

There would still, presumably, be some values that are independent of existential threats (e.g. the intrinsic value of pleasure, or of enhancing theoretical knowledge), but we may find that a good deal of our values are lost or radically altered. We may also, of course, acquire new values that compensate for these losses. But there is something of bet taking place: we risk trading one set of familiar values for another, less familiar, set.

John Danaher holds a PhD from University College Cork (Ireland) and is currently a lecturer in law at NUI Galway (Ireland). His research interests are eclectic, ranging broadly from philosophy of religion to legal theory, with particular interests in human enhancement and neuroethics. John blogs at http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.com/. You can follow him on twitter @JohnDanaher.



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