I was once present when William Hurlbut, during a debate with Aubrey de Grey, spoke of “the meaning that death gives to life”; Hurlbut repeated the standard claims that life without death would be meaningless and empty. As I replied during the comments session, Hurlbut had not made a sincere effort to think about what meaning immortality would give to life, on the same order of the effort that has gone into thinking about “the meaning that death gives to life”.
Philosophers have put forth a mighty effort to find nice things to say about death. But this is scant reason to fear lifespan extension, when philosophers have not put forth an equally motivated effort to say nice things about immortality.
Such is human nature, that if we were all hit on the head with a baseball bat once a week, philosophers would soon discover many amazing benefits of being hit on the head with a baseball bat: It toughens us, renders us less fearful of lesser pains, makes bat-free days all the sweeter. But if people are not currently being hit with baseball bats, they will not volunteer for it.
Modern literature about immortality is written primarily by authors who expect to die, and their grapes are accordingly sour. Hurlbut, it seems, is afraid of living too long. Well, suppose Hurlbut’s most dreaded fear materialized, and he was forced to live forever – worse, in good health – worst of all, with his IQ rising at a steady rate of 1 point per year. What positive aesthetics might Hurlbut find in his inescapable fate?
We cannot ask Hurlbut this question today. Today he expects to die, and so he seeks nice things to say about death, and conversely awful things to say about immortality. But if Hurlbut were sentenced to life, he would probably stop tormenting himself by finding terrible things to say about his situation, and begin to wonder what nice things he might say instead. Such is human nature, after all.
I once discussed death with a woman who said that, because of her awareness of mortality, whenever she thought of a nice thing to say to someone, she would say it right away; because who knows if they might not meet again. What a terrible world it would be if we had unlimited time to say nice things to each other! We should run right out and step in front of trucks. Perhaps if we were immortal, this woman would have remarked on how, whenever you meet a person or deal with them in any fashion, you are bound to meet again someday – thus you should speak kindly to them. What a terrible world it would be, if people met thinking they would never meet again! Then why would people tip appropriately in out-of-state restaurants? We should run right out and sign up with Alcor.
Another common excuse for praising death is that it gives us a sense of urgency. Go hang-gliding today, go learn to play the flute today, for tomorrow may never come. These people must value initiative, if they use it to justify death – what would they say if they were immortal? Perhaps, “You’ve got to learn linear algebra eventually - why not start today?” You’re not saving yourself any work by procrastinating. Isn’t that a beautiful thought – that you’ve got to learn all these things someday, so why not begin now? Such is the meaning that immortality gives to life.
What is the meaning of humanity’s unfolding future, if we are to die, if we are to live? If we are to die, then perhaps the meaning is that – to reverse the words of immortal Gandalf – we are to take thought only for this one generation of the world. We are to bequeath the world in the best possible state to our children, but not otherwise meddle in their affairs. But if we are to live, then the future is our concern personally, and we shall ourselves reap the fruits of whatever we sow. Inescapable responsibility, inescapable consequences. Is this not equally a call to action?
I have met many people who, when I try to tell them of the Singularity, say, “But do you really think all this will happen in our lifetimes?”, as if the universe ceases to exist beyond the horizon of their personal deaths. Given what I’ve actually seen of people’s psychology, if you want anything done about global warming (like building 1000 nuclear power plants and moving on to real problems), then, yes, you should urge people to sign up for Alcor.
What meaning does death, the inevitable termination of existence, give to an effort to be a better person? Perhaps the notion of a virtuous life having a beginning, a middle, and an end; so that it is shaped, through a finite amount of effort, into having a satisfying conclusion; and then it is done, finished like a painting, put on a stand and exhibited. What meaning would immortality give to a virtuous life? An unending, unbounded effort; never finished like a painting, never simply exhibited; never flawless, always improving. Is this not equally a beautiful thought? It may even have the advantage of being equally scary.
But really, both sides of all these arguments fall under the category of “excuses to be virtuous”, which no one should ever need. As I remarked to the woman, after she said that her mortality leads her to say nice things to people right away instead of later, “That’s a beautiful thought, and even if someday the threat of death is lifted from you, I hope you go on doing it.” Once you know what virtuous behavior would help excuse death, or immortality, or whatever, just go ahead and do it without need for an excuse. If this essay has an object, it is to demonstrate the ease of finding beautiful thoughts just about anywhere.
Neither death, nor immortality, are needed to give meaning to life. Life gives meaning to life. The object of friendship is friendship, the object of learning is learning. At most, the particular meanings that death or immortality would give to an act of life are secondary shades, fine points of artistry, like the landscape in the background of the Mona Lisa’s smile.
In truth, I suspect that if people were immortal, they would not think overmuch about the meaning that immortality gives to life. People in the Deaf subculture may ponder the implications of deafness; some Deaf parents even want to ensure that they have deaf children. Yet I rarely find myself pondering the meaning of hearing – perhaps I should! Only clouds must be searched for silver linings. Only things unvirtuous of themselves, must be excused by philosophizing them into excuses for virtue.
If, someday, the threat of death is lifted from humankind, perhaps only those originally born as Homo sapiens, we who were once mortal, will give thought to the meaning of immortality.