Good News for Immortals

Good News for Immortals September 29, 2018

New Scientist shared the results of a survey of the public which indicates that most people would not choose to live forever. This raises interesting questions for the future of conservative Christianity, which for an extremely long time has been cultivating a focus on eternal life as the thing it can offer to attract people. What happens if we reach a point in the future at which human beings, for the most part, do not view immortality as something attractive – and the few who do and can afford it can achieve something akin to it through technological means.

In another piece in New Scientist, two editors explain their conflicting views about whether it is desirable to live forever.

For some, it is simply unimaginable that anyone would find the hope of immorality – and more specifically, their view of what the afterlife or eternal life is like – could be unappealing to anyone. But it doesn’t take science fiction or public surveys to challenge this assumption. A comparison of views of how the afterlife is envisaged among different religious groups will also convey the same point.

I haven’t found the time to pursue such a project, but am hopeful that others will lead the way in pursuing academic books that engage with the intersection of religion and shows like Westworld and Altered Carbon, both of which explore the human quest for technologically-provided immortality, or at least life extension.

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    The language about the destruction of death in Revelation is ambiguous enough that it could cover a lot of things. Considering that the apocalyptic language we have that described past historical events, I think it’s safe to say that the reality on the ground can often be more mundane than the imagery tends to suggest. I’ve got no problem at all thinking that the destruction of death might come through technological means over time.

    I will say in fairness to the selling point of eternal life that it usually comes packaged with the notion that the world will be very different as well, whereas I assume the people taking the survey were thinking about living forever in the world as we know it – a sort of infinite extension of their present experiences.

    • David Evans

      I imagine that in the religious concept of eternal life not only the world but the person will be very different. C.S. Lewis might have said that such a survey is like asking a caterpillar if it would welcome eternal life as a caterpillar. In fact I have a feeling he did use that analogy.
      (edited) He did, at length, in Chapter 11 of Mere Christianity.

    • The Mouse Avenger

      I agree with you (& David Evans below, as well). 🙂

  • Al Cruise

    “What happens if we reach a point in the future at which human beings, for the most part, do not view immortality as something attractive – and the few who do and can afford it can achieve something akin to it through technological means.” This could happen if consciousness and our current state of self awareness is static and cannot not evolve. I would argue against that .

  • John MacDonald

    James said:

    New Scientist shared the results of a survey of the public which indicates that most people would not choose to live forever.

    I am reminded of the Q continuum Philosopher Quinn in the “Death Wish” episode of Star Trek Voyager (1996).

    Wanting the right to commit suicide, Q member Quinn shows a representation of the Q Continuum, which appears as a road stretching around the entire planet with one rest stop, a country gas station and store, and some bored Q standing around. Quinn describes immortality as dull, explaining that it is only possible to experience the universe so many times before it gets boring. . He makes an impassioned speech comparing his eternal boredom to suffering from a terminal biological disease for which suicide is the only humane release, and that being forced to live for eternity against his will “cheapens and denigrates” his life, and indeed all life.

    This also makes me think of Heidegger’s point of how boredom is fundamental to modern life. We are distracted for a while, but always return to a fundamental not-being-at-home, like, as the song says, “a worn out recording of a favorite song.” In the Zollikon seminar, Heidegger and Swiss Psychiatrist Medard Boss comment that:

    Boss: Our patients force us to see the human being in his essential ground because the modem ‘neuroses of boredom and meaninglessness’ can no longer be drowned out by glossing over or covering up particular symptoms of illness. If one treats those symptoms only, then another symptom will emerge again and again … They no longer see meaning in their life and … they have become intolerably bored
    Heidegger: … To be absorbed by something … [means] ‘to be totally preoccupied by something , as for instance, when one says: He is entirely engrossed in his subject matter. Then he exists authentically as who he is, that is, in his task … Da-sein means being absorbed in that toward which I comport myself… To be absorbed in beholding the palm tree in front of our window is letting the palm tree come to presence, its swaying in the wind, is absorption of my being-in-the world and of my comportment in the palm tree. (Z, 160-161)

    • Nick G

      Why would anyone take seriously, gibberish such as that from an enthusiastic and unrepentant Nazi?

      • John MacDonald

        My professor once told me he considered Heidegger to be on the same level as Aristotle. I agree.

        Heidegger was repentant of being caught up in the Nazi movement – see his letters to Hannah Arendt: https://www.amazon.com/Letters-1925-1975-Hannah-Arendt/dp/0151005257/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1538267552&sr=8-2&keywords=hannah+arendt+and+martin+heidegger .

        Heidegger’s anti Semitism of that period was part of the feeling of purpose and meaning he saw the Nazi movement bringing to the German people – helpful to counteract what he saw as the essential homelessness of the human person.

        My grandmother on my mother’s side was in Germany/Poland at that time, and still holds biggoted attitudes toward the Jews and denies the Holocaust. Despite this, I still lover her completely and appreciate her for her otherwise wonderful, giving/caring being. Should I simply abandon my grandmother and ignore the good in her because I am offended by her view of the Jews?

        • John MacDonald

          After all, should we completely ignore the work/ideas of individuals in history who were misogynists, or sympathetic to slavery?

          • Nick G

            See above. A great deal depends on what kind of work or ideas are in question, but we should beware that their bigotry may taint even apparently unconnected areas of their work or ideas, and certainly should not take them as guides to how we should live.

          • John MacDonald

            You seem to be all over the place in your thinking. You say bigotry both is, and isn’t, a checkmark against appreciating a thinker. And what is wrong, for instance, appreciating Heidegger’s Being and Time, written in 1927 – long before there was Nazi influence?

        • Nick G

          Frankly, I don’t value either your opinion of Heidegger, or your unnamed professor’s. Heidegger was not “caught up” in the Nazi movement – he was an enthusiastic participant, who appears to have been a true believer – as you acknowledge – but also benefitted personally to a very large extent. He became rector of Freiburg University shortly after joining the NSDAP in May 1933. His inauguration was a celebration of Nazism (he wore military uniform, started his address with a Nazi salute, and had the Horst Wessel Lied printed on the back of the programme notes), and he promptly carried out the decree to suspend all “non-Aryan” professors,including his one-time mentor Karl Jaspers. He remained an enthusiastic Nazi… until after the war, when it was politic to downplay his allegiance. He then whined self-pityingly about being subjected to (very mild) measures as part of de-Nazification, and succeeded in persuading Arendt – his former mistress – to support his rehabilitation. He was, in short, an entirely disgusting human being. Now that wouldn’t necessarily mean there was nothing worthwhile in his philosophy, if that was of a technical nature – Frege was also a vile antisemite, but that does not in any obvious way detract from his work in logic, although it still behooves us to be aware of such things. But since Heidegger was the kind of philosopher who attempts to tell us how we should live, and his thought led him directly into the vileness of Nazism, we can be confident that it was fundamentally warped.

          Heidegger’s anti Semitism of that period was part of the feeling of
          purpose and meaning he saw the Nazi movement bringing to the German
          people – helpful to counteract what he saw as the essential homelessness
          of the human person.

          Oh, well, that’s all right then!

          Seriously, apart from the simultaneously ludicrous and nauseating nature of phrases such as “the essential homelessness of the human person”, do you really think there is any adequate excuse for siding with the persecutors against the persecuted? Apparently you do.

          As for your grandmother, that’s your affair, but (a) do you really suppose there is any sort of parallel between a personal relationship with a family member and the assessment of a philosopher’s oeuvre? and (b) it’s rather telling that what seems to matter to you is your own feeling of being “offended” by antisemitism, rather than its effects on its targets.

          • John MacDonald

            I’m not sure where all your irritation against Heidegger comes from. His Philosophy is taught at every major Philosophy department that has a focus on Contemporary Continental Philosophy. I understand he is difficult, and, including the lecture courses, has about 100 book length monographs, but I find his analysis penetrating – especially the stuff on the tragic nature of the human condition, and the history of Philosophy, e.g., thinking the essence of parestios out of a more fundamental deinon (which I wrote my Master’s Thesis on).

          • Nick G

            Apart from his Nazism, and the fact that his “philosophy” is a load of pretentious tosh, you mean?

            His Philosophy is taught at every major Philosophy department that has a focus on Contemporary Continental Philosophy.

            Which is a pretty good reason for dismissing the bulk of “Contemporary Continental Philosophy” (why the upper-case letters?) as meretricious hooey at best.

      • John MacDonald

        Nick said,

        Why would anyone take seriously, gibberish such as that from an enthusiastic and unrepentant Nazi?

        One last thought. I think the scholarly approach to a thinker who has personal failings is to acknowledge those failings, but not simply dismiss his/her work out of hand. For instance, regarding Heidegger’s book “Contributions To Philosophy: Of The Event,” written during his darker years, some of the reviews by professional Philosophers include:

        [This book is] an impressive achievement. (Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews)

        I had tried to study the Contributions before, but I found it impossible. Now, thanks to this new translation, I have access to what may turn out to be the most important philosophical work of our time. (Bruce Ledewitz Duquesne University)

        Contributions is among the most challenging works of our time: rigorous, it is also acrobatic in its leaps and logic; imaginative, it is nonetheless precise; intensely self-reflexive, it engages far-reaching questions. Its greatest challenge though is its language and the new vocabulary it forges. This new translation meets that challenge and so marks a real advance in our understanding of this impossible, yet indispensible book. (Dennis J. Schmidt The Pennsylvania State University)

        Written during the dark years 1936-1938, these Contributions help us to make the transition from Heidegger’s masterpiece, Being and Time, to his later thinking. Some of the darkest pages Heidegger wrote are here, and also some of the most brilliant. The translation by Richard Rojcewicz and Daniela Vallega-Neu is judicious and inspired. (David Farrell Krell DePaul University)

        So, I think I am in the mainstream as identifying Heidegger as an important Philosopher who deserves to be studied.

        • Nick G

          Appeals to authority do not impress me, in domains where expert consensus is absent. I’m well aware many philosophers (although Ledewitz is a legal scholar) take Heidegger seriously. So much the worse for philosophy.

  • Nick G

    In the highly unlikely event of indefinite lifespan becoming available, I would enthusiastically accept (in the also unlikely absence of ethical barriers to doing so). But actual immortality – in the sense of guaranteed existence without end – is so obviously impossible in the real world that I can’t even bring myself to think about whether it’s desirable or not. And none of the supernatural versions on offer from the “great” religions have either any plausibility, or any appeal.

  • Neil Brown

    “the human quest for technologically-provided immortality, or at least life extension.”
    I see immortality and life extension as different things.
    Do I want to be immortal?? Probably, but I might want to change my mind later.
    Do I want to love one more day? Yes. (But ask me again tomorrow.)