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

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?

Discussion Summary


One of the helpful points to come out of the discussion is that it would not simply be the case that one’s relationship to one’s projects would be different in an immortal life: rather, the contents of the projects themselves would in many cases need to be adjusted to reflect immortality.  This raised the interesting question about marriage, in particular.  Is it reasonable to aim for a marriage that literally lasts forever?  If not, would this change the essential nature of marriage?  Or could it still survive, even if reconfigured, in an immortal life?  So, to be a bit more concrete, how would we think of marriage if we went into it knowing that it is almost certainly not going to last “forever”—literally, forever?  (Or is this assumption too pessimistic?) What about other deep personal relationships?  The question here is a special case of a more general point: whereas in some important ways, immortal life (as embodied individuals on earth) would be different from our finite existence as we know it, in other ways it would be the same or similar.  It is important to reflect on whether the similarities are sufficient to render immortal life recognizably human and perhaps also choiceworthy.  Or would it be so different that it would not be recognizable?  Or, if recognizable, not desirable?

Another important point that emerged is that it is helpful to distinguish different challenges to the “urgency” of our projects in an immortal life.  We would clearly still feel an urgency to alleviating pain and significant suffering, and, on the more positive side of things, seeking certain kinds of sensual pleasures and significant rewards.  Human beings are wired so as to find it urgent that our pain go away and our pleasures not be deferred too much.  But how about “identity-conferring” projects and activities?  We might find it harder, in an immortal life, to tap into the energy to engage in these activities, about which we tend to procrastinate even in our finite lives.

In this article and discussion I necessarily had to simplify and focus on certain sub-parts of the larger set of issues.  Here I’d like briefly to emphasize what I’ve left out—or some of what I’ve left out.  First, as I wrote in my essay, I was making “rosy” assumptions about the circumstances of one’s life.  I was doing this in part because I was addressing the Immortality Curmudgeons, such as Bernard Williams, who argue that immortality would be necessarily unattractive, if recognizably human at all.  That is, they argue that we just can’t even imagine any circumstances in which such a life would be choiceworthy for creatures like us.  Thus, to address such a Curmudgeon, all that’s required is some set of circumstances that would render immortal life choiceworthy, even if those circumstances are characterized in wildly optimistic ways.  And I do frankly think that it is wildly and implausibly optimistic to suppose that we will be able successfully to address the increasingly pressing environmental problems of global climate change and scarce resources, and the attendant economic and political challenges, in such a way as to make immortal life for large numbers of people possible (and attractive).

As one of the contributors to the discussion asked, will we have a small group of immortals, or will everyone (or nearly everyone) be immortal?  And will the immortals have children?  Will those children also be immortal?  On some ways of answering these questions, it is not clear that immortal life would indeed be choiceworthy.  (Would it really be desirable to live forever when one is losing everyone one cares about—especially one’s best friends, spouse, and/or children?)  But if a significant cohort is allowed to be immortal, and they are allowed immortal children, then we quickly face in extreme form problems of over-population, scarce resources, and exacerbations of environmental degradation.

Now various Immortality Optimists have supposed that we will be able to solve these “practical” problems.  They have suggested various means.  A recurrent theme of the optimists is that humans will get smarter and smarter (or more and more “rational”) eventually achieving “escape velocity” and ushering in The Singularity, in which super-rational creatures are able to solve all the problems of scarce resources, and so forth.  But, although I remain hopeful, I am less optimistic about human prospects, given our history.

New Big Questions:

1. Could marriage survive in an immortal existence?

2. Could human beings plausibly solve the environmental problems that would become even more pressing, given greater longevity and even immortality?  How?