Saturday, July 26, 2014

John Martin Fischer - How Does a Belief in Immortality Affect the Way We Live Now?

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Immortality seems to me to be morally indefensible. The Earth is right now at 7 billion people, so let's say we develop immortality in 10-15 years, when the population will be at 8 billion or more. So none of those people die, and yet people keep reproducing, forever. Imagine the Earth with 15 billion people, or 25 billion. We have already overpopulated the planet. How would we feed these people, where would we get fresh water (as of now, 780 million people lack clean drinking water and 2.3 billion lack basic sanitation), and what about the lack of natural resources for homes, and so on.

Personally, the idea of immortality is abhorrent. Where and how would we find purpose in life if we never die? Boredom would eventually set in, so the only choice would be suicide. Even in the modern vampire stories, creatures who are immortal, many of the oldest vampires express their sense of exhaustion with existence, their "living" malaise. The fact that this idea turns up even in our myths suggests that it is a commonly held belief.

Anyway - this article sets out a philosophical argument for how the idea of immortality might affect how we live our lives today.

How Does a Belief in Immortality Affect the Way We Live Now?

By John Martin Fischer
July 8, 2014

image: Getty

I was asked to address the question,” "How does a belief in immortality affect the way we live now?" I am going to break this into two separate questions that are related to (if not identical to) it. The first question is, “How would the recognition of extreme longevity or even living forever change the way we would behave (or should behave)?” Then I’ll turn to how a belief in an afterlife would (or should) affect our behavior.

First: imagine that you knew that you would live for a very, very long time. We can simplify and imagine that you know that you will live forever. How would or should this hypothetical supposition affect your behavior? Well, it depends! It depends at least on certain background assumptions about the conditions of your envisaged life. Let’s make the “rosy” assumptions that you are in good health, that your body is not deteriorating, that you are comfortable financially, that you have friends and loved ones who are also immortal (in the sense of living forever). These are, of course, big assumptions; but to ask a really big question, sometimes we have to make big assumptions.

Some would say that, even under these very optimistic assumptions, our lives would be totally different—and unpleasant or even unrecognizable as choiceworthy human lives. Various reasons for this curmudgeonly conclusion have been offered, and we’ll consider just a few. First, some have argued that life under such circumstances would be intolerably and relentlessly boring. The idea is that what keeps us from being bored are our “projects”, and eventually we would run out of projects in an indefinitely long (or even just a very long) life.

I just don’t think this is true. That is, I don’t accept the conclusion that we would run out of projects in a very long (even an infinitely long life). Just consider, for starters, all of the scientific problems that remain to be solved. Focus, as a concrete starting point, on all of the diseases that plague human beings. The project of curing all the currently existing diseases would take a very, very long time. And, even assuming we can (given enough time), cure all existing diseases, by that time many new diseases will have popped up, offering new challenges. I just don’t think that it is obvious that we will ever get to the point where we will have cured all diseases (and palliated all human pain, suffering, and distress—both physical and mental). Simply having lots of time—even infinite time—doesn’t seem to imply that all of these challenges will successfully be met.

And we have just focused on a relatively tiny portion of all of the human challenges—the health challenges. How about all of the other scientific and technological challenges? How long will it take to answer certain fundamental questions of physics and cosmology? Even when they have been answered, if they ever are, there would remain the problems of connecting the abstract theories with all manner of practical problems.

Think, just for another set of concrete examples, of all of the challenges we face in preserving our planet from further environmental degradation. These are multifaceted and daunting. They will keep us busy for a long, long time (if we have that long). They could keep us going for a very long time in an infinitely long life.

So far we have considered just a few (admittedly central and important) scientific challenges that would generate projects in an immortal life. There are more where they came from. And think of all of the other kinds of projects: athletic, artistic, social. Consider the projects of writing poetry or novels or creating lovely paintings or sculptures. Or reading and appreciating novels. Why suppose that these projects would run out? Even if you had an infinite amount of time, why suppose that you would exhaust all of the novels worth reading? Suppose you were to read all of the novels currently worth reading. That would take a very, very long time. But (as with the diseases above) by the time you were finished, there would certainly be a new set of novels worth reading (novels that had been written during your very long process of reading). And why suppose that you could not find challenge and engagement in writing novels, even after a million or a billion years? (Of course, all of one’s projects would have to be distributed appropriately—reading or writing or anything can be boring if pursued without a break!).

The challenges and associated projects discussed above might be called “other-directed” projects. But there are also “self-directed” projects, such as eating delicious food, drinking fine wines, listening to music, enjoying art and natural beauty, sex, prayer, and meditation. These are “self-directed” projects in the sense that they aim at or crucially involve pleasant or agreeable mental states of the individual whose project it is. Again, you would have to distribute these projects properly in a very long or even infinitely long life. But why would a life that contained at least some of these projects necessarily be boring? Why couldn’t these activities be part of an overall life that is engaging and worthwhile?

Assuming that we would still have projects—other-directed and/or self-directed—in a very long or infinitely long life, would we have any motivation to pursue the projects? Some have thought that, given an infinite amount of time, all our activities and projects would lack “urgency”. They have even suggested that we would not have any motivation to do anything insofar as “there would always be time”. This is kind of a procrastinator’s nightmare (or perhaps dream!).

But I don’t have much sympathy for the contention that we would have no motivation in an immortal life. Consider, for example, the motivation to avoid pain—that would still exist in an immortal life. Similarly for the motivation to address other forms of limitation or impairment. We care about how we feel now; if we are now in pain or impaired, we will want to address those issues in a timely way. If I am in significant pain now, it is hardly comforting to know that I have forever to live and so eventually my pain will subside.

Similarly with loneliness. If am separated from someone I love or care about, or if I am just lonely now, I have reason to seek to reunite with the person or to find friendship, love, and companionship. The mere fact that I know that I have forever does not alleviate the suffering of loneliness now.

The curmudgeons about projects in an immortal life are too pessimistic. They are spoil-sports. They greatly underestimate the prospects for human engagement and fulfillment. They look at our projects as like books in a library; with infinite time, we can read all of the books. They forget that there will always be new books to read and even new perspectives to bring to the old books.

What about the second way of understanding our basic question? That is, what if we were to come to believe in immortality in an afterlife? How would (or should) this affect our behavior? Well, again, it depends. First, it depends on what conception of immortality we work with—a Buddhist or Hindu view of reincarnation? A Judeo-Christian conception of the afterlife in heaven or hell?

But let’s abstract away from details. In all plausible religious views, what matters crucially for your prospects after you die—your next life in the wheel of reincarnation or your place in heaven, hell, or perhaps purgatory—is the moral quality of your life here and now. That is, your prospects are enhanced by right action for the right reasons in this life. You need actually to care not just about yourself, but about others—you need to love others and to care about justice. If your actions manifest love of others and a dominant concern for justice, then you will be rewarded in the afterlife. It is key that you must act for the right reasons. And here it is important that the reason for your behavior must not be that it will enhance your prospects in the afterlife. You may of course understand and anticipate this fact. But it cannot be your reason for action. If it were, then your action would be motivated by self-interest and not morality. You would not be doing the right thing for the right reason. So there is a sense in which your behavior now should be focused on this world and the needs and interests of others here and now, even if one were to believe in an afterlife.

Discussion Questions:


1. Do you agree that you would not necessarily run out of other-directed projects in a very long life? An infinitely long life?

2. Do you agree that you could still have self-directed projects in a very long or infinitely long life? Or would such a life necessarily be boring?

3. Do you agree that, even if you believe in an afterlife, you should be concerned about your behavior and motivations here and now. Or do you thank that you should focus more on the life to come?


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