Immortality and Boredom

Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.—Susan Ertz.


In this paper, we aim to clarify and evaluate the contention that immortality would be necessarily boring (the Necessary Boredom Thesis). It will emerge that, just as there are various importantly different kinds of immortality, there are various distinct kinds of boredom. To evaluate the Necessary Boredom Thesis, we need to specify the kind of immortality and the kind of boredom. We argue against the thesis, on various specifications of “immortality” and “boredom.”

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  1. 1.

    Williams (1973, p. 74). He goes on to write:

    If one pictures living forever as living as an embodied person in the world rather as it is, it will be a question, and not so trivial as may seem, of what age one eternally is. EM was 342; because for 300 years she had been 42. This choice (if it was a choice) I am personally, and at present well disposed to salute—if one had to spend eternity at any age, that seems an admirable age to spend it at.

    Perhaps Williams was particularly fond of 42, insofar as he was 42 when he delivered the lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, which was the basis for the article. But Williams evidently did not get the “biological” and “chronological” ages of the main character exactly right. Rosati (2013, pp. 355–356) points out that “[w]e discover in the fourth act that the apparently 30-odd year-old Emilia Marty—a.k.a. Elina Makropulos, a.k.a. Ellian MacGregor, a.k.a. Eugenia Montez—has lived to the ripe old age of 337.” For the purposes of this paper we will assume that EM is “biologically” 37 years old and “chronologically” 337 years old.

  2. 2.

    See, for example, May (2009), Nussbaum (1994), Kagan (2012) and Cave (2012). Arguably, Jorge Luis Borges (1947) makes a similar point in his treatment of the “troglodytes.” Recently, Scheffler (2013, pp. 83–110) has expressed his agreement with Bernard Williams’ position on immortality. In her comments on Scheffler in this volume (pp. 143–146), Seana Shiffrin also lines up on the side of those who would not find immorality choiceworthy for reasons similar to those put forward by Williams and Scheffler.

  3. 3.

    There are different senses of the question whether one will continue to live, and the claim is not that categorical desires settle all of them. Consider the question whether one will recover from cardiac arrest. In one sense, this is clearly settled by matters having to do with one’s physiology. But in another sense, this is a question having to do with one’s psychology. Williams’ claim is that our answer to this question has to do with a certain category of desires that are connected to the rational continuation of a life.

  4. 4.

    For a thoughtful critical discussion of Williams' views about conditional and categorical desires, and their connections with reasons (and also happiness), see Rosati (2013).

  5. 5.

    Compare the summary of Williams’ argument given by Scheffler (2013, p. 94).

  6. 6.

    Note that Williams’ claim assumes that sameness of personal identity over time requires being propelled by a stable set of categorical desires. His claim is that any set of categorical desires capable of underwriting persistence of the same person would necessarily run out of steam at some point in time, and thus it would no longer be able to propel this person into the future by giving him or her reasons to continue to live. Our focus in the text will be on the challenge of running out of categorical desires, which assumes sameness of identity. This is the problem of boredom. But Williams’ claim also raises the problem of personal identity over time. If it is impossible for the same set of categorical desires to propel one indefinitely into the future and if personal identity requires a stable set of categorical desires, then it is impossible to remain the same person over an indefinite span of time. Because the problem of boredom presupposes sameness of personal identity (or else it would not be one who is bored, but rather someone else), we simply note the problem of personal identity and our skepticism about it. We are not convinced that sameness of personal identity over time requires the kind of stable set of categorical desires Williams thinks it does.

  7. 7.

    See, for example, Fischer (1994).

  8. 8.

    Imagine a life in which you are not deteriorating biologically and are otherwise in favorable circumstances. You live comfortably, and every week you have at least some very pleasant experiences—enjoying some good meals, listening to beautiful music, and so forth. Let us say once a month you have great sex. Forever. Now much of what we find meaningful and valuable and choiceworthy in human life—love, friendship, striving for great achievements, helping others, solving the great challenges of the planet—is missing from this picture. Indeed, Fischer would completely agree that much of what we really care about and value is missing from this scenario; he never wished to contend that we can reduce value and meaningfulness to pleasures, even "repeatable" ones. Rather, the issue he addressed was whether such a scenario includes factors that plausibly are or help to generate reasons to continue living an infinitely long life. It is implausible to Fischer to suppose, as apparently Williams must, that there would be no reason for an individual living such a life in what promises to be an immortal existence to prefer to continue to live, rather than to die. That is his point.

  9. 9.

    For an earlier sketch of this view, see Fischer (2012, esp. pp. 535–536).

  10. 10.

    Harry Frankfurt argues essentially that love makes the normative world go around. See, for instance, Frankfurt (2006).

  11. 11.

    We do not mean to suggest that Kagan is guilty of the confusions we have noted above in the text. Rather, we have sought to identify some possible confusions suggested by some of his formulations, and we are issuing an admonition to his (and our) readers to be aware of the possibility of dismissing the potential desirability of immortality too quickly. We wish to commend Kagan's book, which is designed in part to introduce students and a broader audience to the fascinating and difficult issues pertaining to death and immortality without exploring all the nuances.

  12. 12.

    The character, Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, in Douglas Adams’ series, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, finds himself bored. He thus decides to insult everyone in the universe one at a time in alphabetical order. (Adams 1966, p. 317 f.) We have argued that Wowbagger need not have been bored in virtue of living forever. We note however that his bizarre "solution" seems to presuppose the model of the library with a finite collection. How is it supposed to work given that there would be many new people to insult coming into existence all the time, and at least some of their names would begin with letters he had already gone through?

  13. 13.

    It is also different than a worry in this ballpark raised by Scheffler (2013, p. 99). Scheffler’s claim is that “temporal scarcity” is a condition on our valuing attitudes playing an important role in our lives. In short, we could not engage in our current practices of valuing if we lived forever because those practices presuppose various time limits. Because there is a tight connection between valuing and motivation, however, Scheffler’s worry about valuing may be more similar to the worry about motivation-boredom than Williams’ worry about content-boredom is. Nevertheless, it is clear that not all motivation is connected to valuing, so even if Scheffler is correct that we could not value given immortality, it may remain the case that we could be motivated in relevant ways. Moreover, as Scheffler (2013, p. 17) acknowledges, the concept of valuing is not identical to the concept of caring. So it is not clear that his view poses a challenge to our claim that one might be able to care about things in an immortal life. But we grant that the issues here are complex.

  14. 14.

    For a taxonomy of various models of immortality, especially as they are treated in science fiction, see Fischer and Curl (1996).

  15. 15.

    We borrow the terminology of “medical immortality” and “true immortality” from Cave (2012, pp. 63, 74–78, and 267–268).

  16. 16.

    The theological sense of “the afterlife” is to be distinguished from the nonstandard, yet very interesting, sense of “the afterlife” introduced by Scheffler (2012, p. 15): “that others will continue to live after I have died.”

  17. 17.

    It might be helpful to distinguish two forms of true immortality. In the first form, one is invulnerable to death in virtue of one's intrinsic features. Here we suppose that one is so strong that one cannot be pulverized, and so forth; perhaps one has an extremely strong protective membrane or skin that renders one invulnerable to death. In the second form of true immortality, one might be molecule-for-molecule isomorphic to a medically immortal individual, but nevertheless be invulnerable to death because of the actual or hypothetical behavior of some other agent. So perhaps God has situated the individual such that he will never be killed, or perhaps God would intervene to reassemble him, should he be hit by a bomb, and so forth. It is not clear whether one would deem such individuals medically immortal but in maximally safe places (or with “guardian angels”), or truly immortal; for our purposes nothing hinges on whether to so construe such individuals or to consider them truly immortal in virtue of extrinsic properties (as above).

    It is interesting to consider whether in Heaven the individuals are immortal in virtue of intrinsic or extrinsic properties. Either way, they cannot die. On one way of thinking about such individuals, they will live (or exist) forever in virtue of their intrinsic properties (perhaps they are souls and by their very nature cannot be destroyed). Such individuals would be true immortals (of the first form). On another way of thinking about the individuals in Heaven, they will live (or exist) forever in virtue of their extrinsic properties—God has so arranged an environment in which they will never be attacked or "killed" (or caused to go out of existence). These individuals are either medical immortals in maximally safe environments or true immortals (of the second form).

  18. 18.

    Of course, there is indeed considerable interest these days in enhancing longevity and even achieving a kind of immortality. For a helpful discussion, see Weiner (2010).

  19. 19.

    In allowing the elixir to be destroyed, EM chooses to give up her medical immortality. In Tolkien's, The Lord of the Rings, the “half-elf,” Arwen chooses to give up her true immortality because she is in love with the human being, Aragorn. In the movie, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Arwen says, “I would rather share one lifetime with you [Aragorn] than face all the ages of this world alone. I choose a mortal life.” Note that for Tolkien hobbits and humans are mortal, elves truly immortal, and half-elves must choose between mortality and true immortality. We have benefited here from Davis (2003). We thank Garrett Pendergraft for bringing Tolkien's treatment of these issues to our attention.

    Of course, there are countless fictional treatments of these issues in which characters feel trapped by the prospect of immortality and choose to “escape it.” For a theological allegory in which Mr. Weston, who (it turns out) is the creator of the world, voluntarily gives up his immortality (in the face of boredom and despair), see Powys (1925).

  20. 20.

    Weiner (2010, pp. 10, 11) writes:

    … we live in a new time, with a somewhat different sense of time. Our life expectancies are increasing by about two years per decade, or about five hours per day, according to the standard estimates of scientists who study human life spans. That is to say, for every day we live now, we are given the gift of another five hours to live later on. While time runs out today, time pours in tomorrow…

    By 1900, in the most developed countries of the world, including England and the United States, life expectancy had crept up to forty-seven years. … By the end of the twentieth century, babies could expect about seventy-six years….

  21. 21.

    An exception is Cave (2012, p. 267), whose treatment we go on to discuss in detail. But see, especially, the quotation in note 23, below.

  22. 22.

    More precisely, motivation-boredom would not be a special problem for a medically immortal human being. There is no reason to suppose that there are no mortal humans who suffer from motivation-boredom. Our point is that medical immortality would not render one especially vulnerable to this affliction simply in virtue of one’s (medical) immortality.

  23. 23.

    Cave (2012, p. 266). Later, Cave insightfully adds:

    What is particularly interesting about this problem—the problem of an infinite future—is that it does not affect all immortality narratives equally. If, for example, one of Linus Pauling's successors formulates a medical elixir that could stave off aging indefinitely, they would not thereby make us immune to death in all its forms. So-called medical immortals could always hope to live to the next year or decade or century, yet the Reaper’s scythe would still be hovering. Given all the things that could go wrong, from a piano falling on their head to the heat death of the universe, the medical immortals would not therefore be faced with a truly infinite future. They might have a challenging time planning their lives, not knowing if those lives would last fifty years or fifty thousand, but it would not be impossible.

    The situation of what we might call a “true immortal” who cannot die would be quite different… and the aimlessness of unceasing eons beckons. (Cave 2012, pp. 267–268).

  24. 24.

    This situation obviously poses a serious risk of procrastination. The possibility of pursuing project P2 at t1 at least offers the possibility of what John Perry (2012) calls, “structured procrastination,” in which we do get some things done, even if they are not the things about which we are procrastinating.

  25. 25.

    Niko Kolodny makes some similar points in his comments in Scheffler (2013, pp. 167–268). For Scheffler’s reply, see Scheffler (2013, pp. 201–207).

  26. 26.

    For a more detailed discussion and defense of the claim that our reasons would be “time-sensitive” (or urgent) even in true immortality, see Fischer (2005, esp. pp. 156–160).

  27. 27.

    Note that robust immortality is distinct from true immortality due to extrinsic factors, considered above in note 17. A robustly immortal individual can die, whereas a truly immortal individual cannot. One might put this difference between them in terms of accessible possible worlds representing future possible circumstances involving them. There are accessible possible worlds in which the robustly immortal individual dies, but there are no accessible possible worlds in which the truly immortal individual dies. What these two individuals share in common, it seems, is that the fact that neither will die is due, at least in part, to extrinsic factors. In the case of the truly immortal individual, of course, the extrinsic factors ensure that he cannot die, not just that he will not die.

    Note also that it would not seem reasonable to aspire to achieve robust immorality. The kind of luck with respect to external factors required for it to be the case that no mortal events ever obtain in one’s case is not something it seems one could reasonably aspire to bring about. One might aspire to take reasonable care and to be safe, but there is only so much one can do. It would be unreasonable to aspire to obviating all possible harms forever. So the possibility of robust immortality does not challenge our claim that medical immortality is the only kind of immortality it is reasonable for us to aspire to (putting aside theological contexts).

  28. 28.

    We would like to thank Jonah Nagashima and Michael Nelson for raising this objection and related considerations in response to an earlier version of this paper.


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For helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper and the issues discussed here, we would like to thank Dave Beglin, Taylor Cyr, Heinrik Hellwig, Maxwell McCoy, Chris McVey, Jonah Nagashima, Michael Nelson, Carlos Ruiz, Travis Timmerman and Mark Wrathall. The writing of this paper was supported in part by the John Templeton Foundation but does not necessarily reflect its views or stances on any of the issues discussed.

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Correspondence to John Martin Fischer.

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Fischer, J.M., Mitchell-Yellin, B. Immortality and Boredom. J Ethics 18, 353–372 (2014).

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  • Boredom
  • Immortality
  • Makropulos Case
  • Bernard Williams