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Would We Want to Live Forever, If We Could?

I’m going to change a key word in our topic question from “we” to “I.” So I will address the question, “Would I want to live forever, if I could?” You can then think about whether you have a similar answer to this question. People seem — almost by nature — to differ in how to respond. Some are what we might call immortality optimists, whereas others are immortality curmudgeons. Where do you fit in?

The first question to ask is what “forever” means in this context. Can we imagine literally living for an infinitely long time? This would seem to require that we be invulnerable to death by any cause, whether being shot multiple times in the head, being run over by a truck, or even having a nuclear weapon detonate right next to us. It is not clear that we can even coherently imagine such invulnerability. I prefer to think about living forever as being, in Stephen Cave’s term, “medically immortal.” Being medically immortal implies that one will not die of natural causes or diseases, but one might still die by artificial causes, for instance, if run over by a truck or engulfed by an avalanche. Cave cites an estimate that such medical immortality would be about six thousand years, so I’ll go ahead and construe immortality that way. Six thousand years is a pretty long time, radically longer than we can live now or will be able to in the reasonably foreseeable future.

No one, presumably, would want to live forever in extremely and perpetually unpleasant circumstances. So I’ll assume that we are talking about living forever in relatively favorable economic, environmental, and social circumstances. But even in such external circumstances, things could happen in one’s life that would make it unbearable to continue living for such a long time. Thus, I will also assume that one would have an “opt-out” option. That is, one could voluntarily choose euthanasia, if things were to get bad enough.

Now some philosophers have rejected the idea that anyone would want to live forever, even if immortality is construed in this relatively attractive way. These philosophers argue that immortality would necessarily and inevitably become deeply and permanently boring for creatures like us. The late Bernard Williams formulated a well-known version of this argument.

I disagree. I, for one, am no immortality curmudgeon; I would want to live forever. I have discussed some of the issues relevant to the necessary boredom thesis previously in these pages. (For further discussion, including a defense of the contention that immortality would not necessarily be boring for creatures like us, see John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin, “Immortality and Boredom.”) There is much of interest to consider with regard to the question of boredom — not boring at all to think about, although it might take a long time to figure it out! But I’d like to focus on another set of issues in this essay.

Assuming that I — the very same person — could exist in six thousand years, why would I care about that future me? That is, even assuming that the very same person who I am now can persist through all of the mental changes that would necessarily take place in creatures like us — changes in memories and values, in particular — over such a long time, why would I care about that future me, who may have no memories of the current me and very different values from the ones I have now? Here I am thinking about “caring about someone” in the special way in which we typically care for ourselves. Bernard Williams has argued that there is no good reason for anyone to care (in this special way) about a future self six thousand years in the future. So, he concludes, there is no reason to want to live forever, even if you could.

The philosopher Shelly Kagan has also argued that there is no reason to want to live forever. (I ask the reader’s indulgence in quoting somewhat extensively from Kagan’s discussion of his “Methuselah case”):

Here I am, almost sixty. I’ve got a set of beliefs. For example, I believe my name is “Shelly Kagan” and I teach philosophy. I have a set of memories about growing up in Chicago, and marrying my wife, and so forth. And I have various desires — for example, I want to finish writing this book. But of course, I will get older, and my personality will change. I’ll get some new beliefs, new memories; I’ll have new desires and new goals. Imagine, then, that I get older and older and older. Suppose that I get very old indeed — very, very, very old. I get to be 100 years old, 200 years old, 300 years old, and more.

Suppose that somewhere around 200, my friends give me a new nickname. They call me Jo-Jo…And eventually the nickname spreads. By the time I’m 250 years old, everybody calls me Jo-Jo. Nobody calls me Shelly anymore. Indeed, by the time I’m 300, 350, 400, I’ve forgotten that anybody ever called me Shelly. I no longer remember growing up in Chicago.…I can’t go back to what it was like in the early days, from my twenties or thirties or forties, just like you can’t go back to what it was like to be three or four. And imagine that…while I’m getting older and older, my personality is changing in a variety of other ways as well. Along the way I lose my interest in philosophy and take up an interest in something I’ve never cared about before at all, perhaps organic chemistry…And my values change, too. Right now, today, I’m a kind, compassionate, warm individual who cares about the downtrodden. But around 300, I start to lose my compassion. At 400 I’m saying things like, “The downtrodden, Who needs them?” And by the time I’m 500, I’m completely self-absorbed…Methuselah, in the Bible, lives for 969 years. He’s the oldest person in the Bible. So here I am, at the end of my life, 969 years old.

Kagan is emphatic in stating that he would not care about his future self, Jo-Jo:

But when I think about the Methuselah case I say, “So what? Who cares?”…That person is completely unlike me, as I am now. He doesn’t remember being Shelly Kagan. He doesn’t remember growing up in Chicago. He doesn’t remember my family. He has completely different interests and tastes and values. I find myself wanting to say, “It’s me, but so what?”

But how, exactly, is the Methuselah case different from our ordinary lives (in the relevant respects)? I currently have no memories of my life when I was four years old. Kagan recognizes this point, but he doesn’t draw out its significance. Presumably, the four-year old me didn’t have any reason to care about the sixty-four year old me. Why would it be different in the Methuselah case? Memory is obviously not perfect. (If it were, that would pose other problems). But sometimes — even in our ordinary, finite lives — we remember nothing about ourselves at previous times. It surely doesn’t follow that our former selves have no reason to care about our future selves.

Similarly, I have very different values now (at sixty-four) than I had when I was thirteen or twenty-one. But, again, surely it does not follow that my thirteen- or twenty-one-year old self had no reason to care about me at sixty-four. In our ordinary, finite lives we expect our values to change, perhaps substantially, over time. Sometimes we even have sudden, unexpected religious or political conversions. Who would say that I before my conversion have no reason to care about me after the conversion?

So I think that Shelly should care about Jo-Jo, indeed, because there is no relevant difference between the Methuselah case and ordinary life. Furthermore, there does not seem to be any relevant difference between the Methuselah case and living forever. So, it follows, I should also care about my future self six thousand years down the road — memory and value do not pose an insuperable threat to the desirability of living forever.

I would want to live forever, if I could. How about you?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is memory a good criterion of personal identity?
  2. We talked mostly about living for a very long time, rather than living for an infinitely long time. Can we really imagine living forever? Would the considerations involved in answering that question differ from those we have discussed?

Discussion Summary

One reader suggested that immortality is a way of avoiding death anxiety. My response was that this may well be so, but it possibly also creates problems of its own — boredom, depression, alienation, and so forth. The issue of the relationship between living forever on this Earth and “living” eternally in (say) Heaven was also broached in the discussion. I feel that this depends on one’s conception of Heaven, but on one conception, the issues are surprisingly similar.

Another reader suggested that the difference between the Methuselah case and an “ordinary” life is that in the former, but not the latter, one is given definite information about the transformations in values (and other characteristics) in advance. More specifically, one knows that one will have a complete and radical inversion of one’s values later in life. This might make one recoil in a way in which one would not necessarily recoil if one simply knows that one’s values will change somewhat or in some ways in the future. Ordinarily, we don’t assume — and we certainly don’t know — that our values will change so that they become antithetical to our current values. This shows that even if Shelly Kagan doesn’t care about his future self in the story, it would not follow that we should not care about our future selves in an infinitely long life.

New Big Questions:

  1. How important is similarity of values for personal identity? Doesn’t such a value criterion of personal identity potentially conflict with a memory criterion? And if there is a conflict, which criterion wins out?
  2. How does one compare eternity in heaven with living forever? Would eternity in heaven necessarily be boring? Could it possibly involve the persistence of personal identity?