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Should We Desire Immortality?

John Paul is a now retired academic with a background in psychology and philosophy.

The fear of death, according to psychologists and social scientists, has always been an important determinant of our mental life both conscious and unconscious, and of our overt behavior, both individual and societal1.

The increasing secularization of society, most notably since the early 20th century, has done nothi­ng to allay this fear, which has found expression in our time in a ‘denial of death’ which manifests itself in various guises: from the relocation of the dying person away from the home to the isolation of a hospital room, to the downplaying of mourning and too overt expressions of grieving, to the portrayal of life as a quest for success and happiness which leaves no room for the acknowledgement of death2: because death is for losers, as someone put it.

Such choices have proved partially successful at best. What else, then, could enable us to face death and yet reduce the anxieties and fears associated with its contemplation? Can the idea of immortality still play a helpful role in this context and in our time? Or can other conceptions better serve us?

Mortality and Immortality - W. M. Harnett (1876)

Mortality and Immortality - W. M. Harnett (1876)

Is Death Such a Bad Thing?

Is life always preferable to death?

It is not difficult to envisage situations in which life can become unbearable, and death wished for and welcomed; increasingly, some societies are acknowledging this possibility through euthanasia laws. Therefore, death may not be inherently bad.

What, does, by converse, make life desirable because worth living? Good health, well liked work, economic well being, satisfying human relationships, the enjoyment of nature and of the highest products of human ingenuity, the many small pleasures that daily life can graciously offer us, are likely candidates. Death is bad, therefore, when it prematurely deprives us of the things we value when we are still capable of properly enjoying them.

If living is desired as long as the good things in life continue to be available to us, does it follow that immortality would be desirable under such conditions? Consider: can you envisage as a truly pleasurable prospect the endless, eternal repetition of even gratifying activities? Or could you in the long run become thoroughly fed up with them? How many football games would I like to watch before becoming totally bored with them? How many culinary delicacies could I enjoy before being sickened by the very sight of them? How many school reunions? Try then to imagine the effects of the eternal reiteration of some of your enjoyable life activities: if you respond as I do to this prospect, you would find this state of affairs undesirable on the long, the eternally long, run.

What about, then, a life in which your interests, activities, talents, social conditions, can vary when you tire of the ones that have sustained your interest for many years? That would be better, surely. But again: within the framework of eternity, would you not eventually become tired of each and every one of them?

As a human being, I am fundamentally limited by my bio-psychological make up, including the constraints for my potential for change as an individual. Hence, even the prospect of an eternally mutable sequence of life styles is not necessarily enticing.

Am I suggesting that immortality is not so desirable after all? That perhaps a well lived, truly desirable life would be, not an everlasting one, but one sufficiently long to enable us to cultivate and actualize the aspects of our nature that appeal to us, up to the point in which we would be ready and able to call it ‘well done’, and to welcome the ‘dying of the light?’ Well, yes.

But consider: the immortality I have been discussing so far consists of an eternal duration of our earthly being in physical space-time. Is this too limited a view of immortality? What other forms of it are conceivable, and perhaps desirable?

Death and Immortality - WIlliam Blake (1757-1827)

Death and Immortality - WIlliam Blake (1757-1827)

Varieties of Immortality

As outlined in a previous essay4, a desire for immortality can be met beyond the individual level, symbolically. One can regard as a sort of biological immortality the continued existence a person achieves through one's children and their own offspring; it can also transcend one's biological family to include broader social groupings and the traditions they embody. Another form of symbolic immortality can be pursued through the products of creative activities such as teaching, writing, inventing, and healing, through which a person can hope to influence the course of human affairs. Immortality can also be symbolically achieved through the acceptance of our kinship with, and embeddedness in, nature: ‘From dust you come and to dust you shall return’ is a powerful reminder of our ephemeral nature. Yet, implicit in it is the assertion that 'the earth itself does not die. Whatever happens to man, the trees, mountains, seas, and rivers endure.’ Yet another symbolic mode of immortality refers to a rapturous experience of timelessness, to the feeling of being raised beyond the limitations of everyday existence and beyond death which is at times and unexpectedly experienced by not a few individuals.

I see nothing wrong nor undesirable in these symbolic varieties of immortality. Yet, a deeply felt longing for immortality would lead one to yearn for more than these impersonal and derivative expressions of it.

What remains to be considered is the kind of immortality that allows a person to transcend bodily death and the constraints of earthly life, as envisaged in the theologies of some of the main world religions, as a key component of an overall view of reality and of humankind’s place in it. These, and other non religious views of post-mortem immortality deserve separate analysis, which cannot be undertaken here. Instead, I shall advance a few general considerations that are relevant for most such views.

Remember, what is in question here is whether or not this kind of immortality is desirable: not whether it is possible. Of course it would be an idle exercise addressing its desirability if we knew with certainty that it is impossible. Suffice it to say here that there is nothing I am aware of on either theoretical or empirical grounds that can be regarded as a decisive refutation of the notion of a - possibly interminable - post mortem survival; I have addressed related issues in a few essays5,6,7. An answer to the desirability question depends essentially upon the specific nature of this kind of immortality. Something better is required, as I argued above, than an endless continuation of the life we know; but it is extremely difficult to imagine it. Immortal life in something like the Christian heaven as traditionally and very simplistically represented, playing harps and all that for eternity, is an example of the difficulty of arriving at a satisfactory portrayal of such a life. Rather, we should think of something inherently good and desirable that would justify its pursuit through unending life. Would I want to exist forever if not with my body yet still within the narrow boundaries of my personality as currently constituted and constrained? No: what a tedious affair it would be! I would contemplate as desirable, instead, being able to continue developing indefinitely, possibly interminably, toward some ultimate goal which I cannot imagine because so remote from what I am and I know now. But, were such a drastic change indeed occur, would I still be myself, at least in some respects, or would I have become something so different as to be unrecognizable by my present self? As I look back on my own life, from birth to the present, I am aware of having lost many memories of my former self; of the fact that my personality has changed considerably over the years, as have my interests, philosophical views, skills, etc. Yet, this change allows me to perceive enough continuity in my being to make me still recognizable to myself. Accordingly, I can envisage a change that though continuous yet gradual could allow me to retain a sense of individual continuity. (Some thinkers and religious traditions, most notably Buddhism, question or deny the very existence of a personal self, whether in earthly life or in a supposed post-mortem state).

Would this same process of evolving development towards an unseen goal still be desirable even if it were to be pursued by a part of us not accessible to our awareness? I think so. For instance, we could imagine that all we currently are in our individual being is already the result of previous developments of our ‘unknown self’, as seemingly envisaged by some views on reincarnation. By experiencing myself as a distinct personality with definite skills and predilections, etc., I would still partake of these hidden developments even in absence of any personal memory of such events. Still, even though worthwhile for me, this limitation greatly diminishes its appeal. What kind of evidence if any - aside from inconclusive though intriguing empirical evidence for reincarnation8 - suggests that the human personality - whether consciously or not - has the potential for undergoing an illimitable development beyond that allotted to our earthly existence? Attention has been brought to a reality within us which seems to never find rest in any single achievement, but always longs for more: for some ‘great thing’, as a poet called it. Indeed, ‘we do find many good things, but there are always other and better beyond... we may find... that the real heaven lies always beyond; beyond each good we may attain here; but also... beyond death... The whole strength of the case for immortality, as thing to be desired, lies in the fact that no one in this life attains his ideal... the potentiality is not fully realized’.9 Not much in the way of evidence.

Der Pfau als Symbol der unsterblichen Seele auf dem gebrochenen Lebensbaum. - 1787

Der Pfau als Symbol der unsterblichen Seele auf dem gebrochenen Lebensbaum. - 1787

What is Good About Immortality

In sum, it seems that, in our world, life is not always preferable to death; that unending physical life is not always desirable; that immortality in any form is not always preferable to finite existence. But some forms of post-mortem immortality may well be.

Entertaining the possibility of a desirable immortality can make our existence in the here and now more meaningful, more calm and serene - there is plenty of time for everything, after all... - its prospects more adventurous, more spacious, projected toward a scarcely imaginable goal. Culminating perhaps, as many mystics seem to tell us, in our union with an unlimited Self, of which we recognize ourselves to be part while perhaps still retaining a measure of our individuality. The alternative to views of this sort, and the one greatly favored by the arbiters of our culture these days, is that, since we are just machines - or meaty robots as we are now taught - our existence is bound to end when the machine which is us breaks down beyond repair. And we better get used to the idea.

Being incapable of belief unsupported by persuasive evidence, I am not advocating any particular view. Nor do I think it likely that this will change any time soon. Indeed, all ultimate questions - including the one discussed here - are by no means settled, not even remotely, in favor of any view, whether currently fashionable or not10.

This at least allows me to more contentedly envision possibilities. It may not be much, but it is better than succumbing - without any compelling reason for so doing - to the dreary imagery of the machine metaphor11.

Biblioteca Joanina

Biblioteca Joanina

References and Notes

1. Becker, E. (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: The Free Press.

2. Ariès, P. (1974). Western Attitudes Toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

3. A thorough discussion of these and related issues can be found in: Kagan, S. (2012). Death. New Haven: Yale University Press.

4. See Lifton, R. J. and Olson, E. (1974). Living and Dying. New York: Prager. d\Discussed in: Quester, J. P. (2022). "Death: A Wall or a Door? And What Do Key Psychologists Have to Say About This?" Owlcation, https://owlcation.com/social-sciences/Death-A-Wall-or-a-Door-And-What-Do-Psychologists-Think-About-This.

5. Quester, J. P. (2022). "What on Earth Happened to the Soul?" Owlcation, https://owlcation.com/humanities/What-on-Earth-Happened-to-the-Soul.

6. Quester, J. P. (2022). "Is Materialism False?" Owlcation, https://owlcation.com/humanities/Is-Materialism-Wrong.

7. Quester, J. P. (2022). "Is a Non-Materialistic View of the Nature of Mind Defensible?" Owlcation, https://owlcation.com/humanities/Is-the-Mind-Other-than-the-Brain.

8. See, e.g. Stevenson, I. (2001). Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation. McFarland and Co.

9. Dickinson, G. L. (1909). Is Immortality Desirable? New York: Houghton Miffling Co.

10. Quester, J. P. (2022). Is Human Understanding Fundamentally Limited? https://owlcation.com/humanities/IS-HUMAN-UNDERSTANDING-FUNDAMENTALLY-LIMITED

11. See also: Quester, J. P.(2022). Every Being is Eternal: On Emanuele Severino's Philosophy. https://owlcation.com/humanities/Every-Being-is-Eternal-On-Emanuele-Severinos-Philosophy

© 2022 John Paul Quester