Immortality, Memory and Imagination


Immortality—living forever and avoiding death—seems to many to be desirable. But is it? It has been argued (notably by Williams, recently by Scheffler) that an immortal life would fairly soon become boring, trivial, and meaningless, and is not at all the sort of thing that any of us should want. Yet boredom and triviality presuppose our having powerful memories and imaginations, and an inability either to shake off the past or to free ourselves of weighty visions of the future. Suppose, though, that our capacities here are limited, so that our temporal reach is fairly significantly constrained. Then, I argue, these alleged problems with immortality will recede. Moreover, similar limitations might help us in the actual world, where life is short. If we cannot see clearly to its end points, both ahead and behind, life will seem longer.

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  1. 1.

    See Belshaw (2009) for discussion and defence of the view that the dead exist.

  2. 2.

    See Philip Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ (in Collected Poems) for a moving articulation of this fear.

  3. 3.

    Nagel (1979) appears to suggest that having experiences, irrespective of its contents, is a good thing, and a reason to avoid death. Look more closely, however, and the strongly counterintuitive position—a life of wholly bad experiences is always better than no life at all—isn’t advanced here. Rather Nagel claims only that the positive value of experience can offset some degree of badness to experience’s contents. But perhaps this is counterintuitive nevertheless.

  4. 4.

    These are, I suggest, the sorts of things most of those interested in immortality, here and now, are likely to want. But variety needs to be countenanced here. See, for example, Chappell (2015) for a rather different view as to what might be wanted.

  5. 5.

    One objection to immortality, not infrequently encountered, is that the whole notion is deeply incoherent. Nothing will go on forever—the laws of physics will see to that. This is not a good objection. We are—as most discussants acknowledge—already in fantasy land in imagining our living for even a thousand years. There is no reason not to take the fantasy further.

  6. 6.

    See, for a defence Belshaw (2000). And for a different position on this, Brueckner and Fischer (1986).

  7. 7.

    Rosati (2013) comments on this but insists also, in a lengthy footnote, that many people do long for an immortal, or at least an extended life. I am a little uneasy about lumping together those wanting to be around forever with those hoping to hit 100 in tolerable health.

  8. 8.

    In saying this I assume the model under consideration has us as either necessarily immortal or with death in our control. Immortals who can still suffer accidental death may fear it more than we do.

  9. 9.

    Williams (1973). Scheffler (2013).

  10. 10.

    Scheffler is puzzled by Williams’ claim as to her age, and says the opera and play report her as being 337. Is this right? She is allegedly born in 1585. The dates of the first productions, 1922 and December 1926, might explain the apparent discrepancy.

  11. 11.

    Might we suppose that the problem is immortality, and that if she had known she would in any event be dead before, say, 800, she would not have given up? This seems implausible.

  12. 12.

    After first hazarding that ‘perhaps she still laboured under some contingent limitations…’ he writes, ‘Against this, I am going to suggest that the supposed contingencies are not really contingencies…’ (Williams 1973: 89) This fits with the earlier claim (Williams 1973: 83) that the situation ‘suggests that it was not a peculiarity of EM’s that an endless life was meaningless’.

  13. 13.

    A further point: her boredom will, absenting death, go on forever. Or will it? Williams does not, so far as I can tell, make it clear whether on his account boredom, once it sets it, is there forever. But on two counts this seems unlikely. First, our ordinary experience of boredom is of something that comes and goes, Moods tend to change. Second, the immortal life goes on for a very long time. On some readings, given enough time, everything that can happen will happen. And as there is nothing incoherent about supposing boredom some day might end, so we should expect this sooner or later to happen. Non-terminal boredom is, perhaps, something we might be more inclined to endure.

  14. 14.

    Moreover, it may be in part just one of ageing’s side effects And nature may simply be kind in making us less inclined to new or even repeated enthusiasms as we are less able to pursue them. A younger person insists they will never tire of life. Someone considerably older plays the wisdom card—just you wait and see. There is, it might seem, little or no support for hypotheses about inevitable boredom to be gleaned from any observations about how things stand in the actual world.

  15. 15.

    It may be that finer distinctions are needed here. Perhaps, after maturity, character changes little. But this is consistent with dropping whole series of long-standing interests, and developing others.

  16. 16.

    See, for some examples, Bradley and McDaniel (2013), Rosati (2013), Belshaw (2014).

  17. 17.

    One unclarity worth noting here is Williams' position towards the end of his discussion (Williams 1973: 86) on minimal categorical desires: ‘Could it be just the desire to stay alive? The answer is perhaps “no”’. The comments that follow do not—to me at least—really pin this down. See, for more, the following footnote, and parts of the discussion in Sect. 1.6 below.

  18. 18.

    My suggestion, then, is that the desire for some future state, in itself reasonable or not, gives us reason or grounds to pursue the means to achieving this state. And I am not clear, of course, that Williams would go this far.

  19. 19.

    So I disagree here with Williams, and his insistence that ‘the state in which I survive should be one that, to me looking forward, will be adequately related, in the life it presents, to those aims I now have in wanting to survive at all’. (Williams 1973: 91).

  20. 20.

    Thus we should believe that ‘…immortality would be, where conceivable, intolerable and that (other things equal) death is reasonably regarded as an evil’. (Williams 1973: 82). And of death’s timing, ‘Necessarily it tends to be either too early or too late’. (Williams 1973: 100).

  21. 21.

    For there is no necessity to bad timing. As well as simple good luck, we can imagine that we are all able—perhaps encouraged—to choose when to die and so to exit when interest wanes and before boredom sets in.

  22. 22.

    See, in particular p. 91, and then the reiteration at p. 93.

  23. 23.

    Susan Wolf is particularly good, in her commentary, at identifying and querying these excesses in Scheffler’s account. See Wolf (2013: 119–123 in particular).

  24. 24.

    Scheffler himself notes this difference, saying of EM’s predicament that it derives from the backward- rather than forward-looking features of her situation.’ (Scheffler 2013: 91).

  25. 25.

    Fischer is, I believe, responsible for introducing this fine term (subsequently taken up by many) into the immortality literature. See Fischer (1994).

  26. 26.

    So see Bortolotti and Nagasawa (2009), Bortolotti (2010), Burley (2009a, b), Chappell (2007), Fischer (1994, 2013), Wisnieski (2005), for various attempts to counter the curmudgeons.

  27. 27.

    ‘Immortality, or state without death, would be meaningless…’ (Williams 1973: 82), ‘It was not a peculiarity of EM’s that an endless life was meaningless…’ (Williams 1973: 83) ‘an endless life would be a meaningless one…’ (Williams 1973: 89).

  28. 28.

    See the argument from pp. 99–101, and then its conclusion: ‘I have been arguing that our confidence in our values depends on our status as mortals who lead temporally bounded lives and that immortality would undermine that confidence. This argument provides a different route to Williams's conclusion that death gives meaning to life’. An important detail: on my interpretation of the immortality problem it needs to be emphasised that it is not the mere fact that we have an endless life, but our recognizing this that leads to meaningless. Neither Scheffler here nor Williams in the claims in the previous note make this clear. Nevertheless, I do not suggest there is any disagreement here: this is, I think, implicit in their accounts.

  29. 29.

    See Wolf (2010). Though the claim about objective and subjective elements (one example—a meaningful life will be ‘actively and lovingly engaged in projects of worth’) is compelling, other details of her account, such as her efforts to impact and emphasise notions of independent value, might elicit reservations.

  30. 30.

    Consider, for example, claims first that life in the experience machine is meaningless because based around illusion [and see Belshaw (2014)] and second that your helping others is meaningful even if you are disengaged. Both can be profitably debated.

  31. 31.

    See Elizabeth Harman (2011: 730). Harman considers this in relation to the badness of death. It seems to me that the impoverishments of such a life are underestimated, and that for one who lives this way it is true both that death is not bad and that life is meaningless. Fischer suggests that if we live a bit more like animals and ‘chill our a bit’ (Fischer 2013: 352) we might better cope with an immortal life. Well, yes, but again I doubt this is the life for us. And see Scarre (2006: 60) for similar distinctions between pleasant enough lives, and lives for us.

  32. 32.

    Jeremy Wisnewski has suggested that someone might happily enough spend an immortal life learning to play, to a virtuoso level, whole orchestras of musical instruments. This might be engaging, constantly absorbing, and charges that it will inevitably become boring might be resisted. There are a lot of instruments, many will take decades to master, new ones will be developed as time goes on. Suppose we accept all this. Is this not still, no matter how much fun, a pretty pointless life? It is not the life of Heifetz or Casals or Brendel, but longer and better. Someone devotes their life to an instrument now. This involves commitment and sacrifice, a constant struggle, an inevitable and foreseen decline, with perfection always just out of reach. They select and engage with a repertoire, just some part of what is available, that itself derives from and reflects similar struggles, and attempt to convey some of this to an audience that shares with them this ambivalent and uneasy relationship to the human condition. The immortal counterpart, where all such compromises and constraints are absent, reduces this profound and deeply demanding art to a mere hobby or pastime. And Corliss Lamont insists that even after drinking it for 63 years he still ‘loves water’. (Lamont 1965: 33) Even if he loves it (or loved it) enough to want to go on living in order to love it some more, this doesn’t strike me as making any significant contribution to a meaningful life.

  33. 33.

    Bruckner (2012) is someone who has in a not dissimilar fashion considered the workings of memory in the immortality debate.

  34. 34.

    Again there is an assumption here that the world is pretty much stable, with other people in the same immortality boat.

  35. 35.

    See Nussbaum (2013) for valuable reflections on this.

  36. 36.

    You know you have done such things countless times before, but people today know that others have done such things countless times before. What impacts there might be on meaning are perhaps roughly comparable.

  37. 37.

    See again Wolf’s critique of Scheffler, and her suggestions for doomsday activities: Wolf (2013: 122).

  38. 38.

    See Parfit (1984: Part II, Section 67). The suggestion there, that we might profitably be selective in our memories, choosing to remember the good, interestingly compares with mine, that we should come to remember the relatively near.

  39. 39.

    Consider, for example, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and, more directly connected with immortality, Swift’s Struldbrugs in Gulliver’s Travels and Tennyson’s eponymous protagonist of Tithonous. The interest here, with respectively comic and tragic overtones, is in winning immortality without at the same time putting a halt on ageing.

  40. 40.

    So it seems to have seemed to many of those involved. But, of course, parallels between communism and religion have been much explored.

  41. 41.

    See, for much more on both spiritualism and communism—and we might think of these as concerned, respectively, to discover and to create immortality—(Gray 2012). The Immortalization Commission is both fascinating and frustrating and, driven by Gray’s sceptical and debunking agenda, not always convincing. One telling example: the full title of the body referred to here is The Commission for the Immortalization of the Memory of V.I. Lenin and this, coupled with the slicing of dead leader’s brain in 1925, itself described by Gray, rather undermines the claim that attempts at a full scale revival were ever seriously attempted. That stated, the commission member most central to the embalming project, Leonid Krasin, did hold out hopes for eventually conquering death, and was an early experimenter in cryonics (Dickerman 2001).

  42. 42.

    Here Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tapes, concerned, of course, with sound rather than vision, constitutes a notable investigation of this backward concern, aided by technology.


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Much of the work that has gone into this paper has been made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton Foundation. I sincerely thank the organisers generally, and John Fischer in particular, for their encouragement and support. I first gave expression to some of the positions developed here in a chapter on immortality in 10 Good Questions about Life and Death (Wiley-Blackwell, 2005). I thank all those who assisted me with that project, and thank also those who, subsequently, have engaged me in debate on the issues there raised. Closer precursors to the argument as developed here featured in talks that I gave, first in December 2013 to the Open University in, and then in November 2014 as part of the London Month of the Dead. I thank the organisers and the audiences for their comments and their support.

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Belshaw, C. Immortality, Memory and Imagination. J Ethics 19, 323–348 (2015).

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  • Immortality
  • Memory
  • Imagination
  • Boredom
  • Triviality
  • Meaning