Letters to a Concerned Free-Thinker, Letter #5: Immortality and Death
Mortality – whether or not we wish to admit it – is the condition that we are born into; one is born with a limited amount of time to indulge in existence before they are finally, and violently, thrown out of it. This may scare some of us, existence being a temporary thing, but it should not deter us from at least enjoying the experience of it. One cannot do anything about their mortal state – and as a result one should instead live out it to its natural end. Yet, with this fact of our own mortality there are still those who persist that there will be a next life; and who thus live out there life in the hopes of reaching it. Journalist and polemicist, Christopher Hitchens, put it plainly:
You are expelled from your mother’s uterus, as if shot from a cannon towards a barn door studded with old nail files and rusty hooks. It’s a matter of how you use up the intervening time in an intelligent and ironic way… [sic]
Death is the end, it is the figurative “barn door”, and how one chooses to live it is entirely up to them. This brings me to the nature of this letter, and the question I wish to address. It is the question of mortality vs immortality, and whether or not one is willing to consider if immortality is worthy a desire: would you want to live forever? You see, it is easy to give a simple answer with little thought and little dedicated time, but it is another matter to give a full answer with detail. Immortality is most desirable to humanity; the ability to forsake the chains of nature’s justice and escape death, is one which tempts us. It is for this reason that one wishes to dispense with the idea, and argue why immortality is not, as it is portrayed, a good desire to have.
Taken at a second glance and with a more scrupulous analysis, one can see why such an offer would be more harmful than good. Consider this: You have all the time in the world to do anything, how much effort do you exert on the things you do, given that you have all the time to do those activities you so desire? I could imagine the effort would not be as strenuous, given the fact that the time pressure that births the best of works is virtually absent; one of the largest incentives for completing a task becomes non-existent with immortality. Here we see is the first problem, the first “Red flag’” in this offer of immortality, there is no time limit or effort put upon the individual. Care and effort arises from the constraints of time; when there is a limit (in regards to ‘time’ being that limit), we will act accordingly – exerting as much care and effort as possible in completing the most trivial of tasks. The one who chooses immortality has no need to complete a task, for they can come back to it whenever they so choose to do so; why bother doing the task? However, one sees a bigger issue, one at which may be more relevant than the last. The ultimate consequence of immortality is that one’s life becomes Meaningless; nihilistic in nature. One will get to this a little later.
As mortals we know instinctively that what we do has an end to it; and thus, as if a slap to the face, it gives us a reality check at which to gather our intentions and move hastily towards a resolve of the occurrence we are faced. More time needs to go into each activity, and each activity has a unique individual attribute as morals derive meaning from these activities. Immortality takes away the unique individualism in those activities, and draws them to a simple one liner: “what’s next?” To emphasise this let me pose you an example:
Imagine if you will two distinctively different children. One is named Socrates Ballister, and the other is named Alice Locke. Both are given the exact same task, namely that of building a structure out of matchsticks. Socrates is given a limited time of 1 hour to complete the task, well Alison is not given a time; she is given the freedom to do other things. Imagine the state of Alice, how much time and effort she will exert as opposed to Socrates. Daily activities will become more predominant then the activity first given to her. Who knows, she could not even complete the task, or she could hold up the completion of the task for years to come. And suppose she eventually got to it, would she really exert as much effort? Socrates is different. He is limited in his task; meaning that he must use his intuition, the viable resources, dexterity and speed to hand in the structure before the hour is up. Socrates must place purpose into what he does, and dedicate his time and effort to his work. The reward given to Socrates is the acknowledgement of his own creation, which is what is sufficient. However, as for Alice she had no incentives – no burden placed on her shoulders to complete the task before her, and thus no reward.
The above example only highlights the value of time, and we all must not forget that time may be a great factor in the running of our activities in life; however, it is not the most predominant reason for life itself, or a purpose for the individual. Time allows for causality: if there is no beginning then there is no end; if there is no end then there is no beginning. If there is a beginning but no end, then there is an endless causal chain (logic would suggest) going on into oblivion. If there is a beginning and end, then there will be a natural cycle at which there will be a clear direction (outward perspective: one that is not contingent on inward relation). A mortal’s life consists of events that have natural ends. A person makes a cup of tea, the intended function of that cup is to provide sustenance to the drinker, and once this need is met it serves no purpose besides its initial one. Immortality is an infinite Cup of tea by which the initial purpose of sustenance is there but its value diminishes over-time; drying out its purpose, or initial value. The great importance of time and natural progression is its ability to initiate value in the subject that is a part of it; everything has a purpose, every means by which a person wakes, does an activity etc. As they provide a natural means by which to start another causal chain of events, by which all bear on that initial starter.
The immortal offer may sound good, but over-time the tasks that seemed worthwhile at the beginning, begins to lose value to the person initially doing it. As humans we have the tendency to imagine things in relative time (this is to say we view it as ‘close-time’, not thinking long-term about our decision processes.), but when we are speaking of ‘infinity’, which is the nature of time to an immortal, the amount of activities one does in that time will lose warranty faster than that of a mortal – but there is an added hook to the offer! The interaction one has with their fellow human being loses value, for the individual has to go through a succession of loves and heart breaches. For the price of immortality means that one can never love someone with their deepest passions, without the fear of losing them. Granted that this can also happen to mortals, but the good thing about mortality is that you can die and experience love in its truest sense, rather than experience loneliness in its truest sense. The only logical conclusion that one can draw is to simply not have any relationships; for if one does not have relationships then one cannot experience that pain of loss. However if humans are naturally a social species, who need unity and love to derive purpose, then would not that in itself diminish a purpose for the immortal, who is bound by time to stay, and who cannot by in unison with others? Say you did not care for your fellow constituency, and instead embellished in narcissistic luxuries. Say that you only cared for the material luxuries in your life. One must realise that those things also are temporary, and once those material possessions lose their appeal they will also fade away into obscurity; evermore losing value and steering you towards the point of boredom. Or will you embrace nihilism? In fact if you were an immortal in this case you would slowly become a nihilist, would you not? Then what would happen?
Religions seek to offer immortality; an eternal life in the form of heaven, or some sort of paradise, as an incentive for subscribing to their religious dogmas. It is in this case that one should refer to the aforementioned discussion, however, with the added incentive for reproach. In the most widely subscribed monotheistic, Abrahamic and messianic religions, the mandate of worship means an eternity of worship. One is offered heaven and a relationship with the almighty, “what could be so bad about that?” Now at first it sounds good, but keep in mind what eternity means. If one spends an entire lifetime climbing a steep mountain they will find that they have not even scratched the surface of the timescale of infinity, for there is no end in sight when talking about eternity.
By trading in one’s life for an afterlife, one is relinquishing the life they have for a fantasy; a fantasy of the darkest kind. For the fantasy they are given is a promise of an eternal worship of a narcissistic God, one at which there can be no expression of renouncement. A deity who can never relinquish its control over you, something that is no better than embracing nihilism, or embracing an ultimate surrender of the facilities as the offer from religion is bent on doing. Many people wish to leave the discussion on immortality when religion is interjected, as they fear it may affect them or may offend them. However, one must not forget that conversations to do with death, mortality and immortality are bound to collide with religious discussion eventually, why not start it here? As free-thinkers we must be ready to take on the opinions and statements of those of the religious lobby.
It would appear that a large proportion of humanity has not come to grips with their own mortality, many it would seem live for the next life rather than this one. They waist their life on the idea of an afterlife, and adjust their whole frame of focus to living out that ideal. The most devoutly religious individuals raise whole families under the guise that there will be an eternal bliss, an eternal paradise for them when they die. How sad it is to understand where religion originates, and the history of religion’s evolution through the epochs, and still see individuals cling to an ideal that clearly has no foundation. The only reason for why religion still holds prominence is because of the amount of individuals who raise their children with these beliefs, and who thus do psychological damage upon them by shifting their gaze off of reality. However I digress, and come to now to a speech that is to be mentioned. It comes from Christopher Hitchens, and it befitting of the aforementioned discussion on immortality. He was debating intelligent design advocate, William Dembski, it is in response to a question the moderator asked about eternal life, here it is:
Why don’t you accept this wonderful offer? [Eternal life in heaven] Why wouldn’t you like to meet Shakespeare, for example? I don’t know if you really think that when you die you can be corporeally reassembled and have conversations with authors from previous epochs. It’s not necessary that you believe that in Christian theology and I have to say that it sounds like a complete fairy-tale to me. The only reason I want to meet Shakespeare, or might even want to, is because I can meet him anytime because he is immortal in the works he’s left behind. If you’ve read those then meeting the author would almost certainly be a disappointment. But when Socrates was sentenced to death, for his philosophical investigations and for blasphemy for challenging the gods of the city, and he accepted his death he did say, “Well, if we are lucky perhaps I will be able to hold conversation with other great thinkers and philosophers and doubters, too.” In other words, that the discussion about what is good, what is beautiful, what is noble, what is pure, and what is true could always go on. Why is that important? Why would I like to do that? Because that’s the only conversation worth having. And whether it goes on or not after I die, I don’t know. But, I do know that it is the conversation I want to have while I am still alive. Which means that to me the offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can’t give way is an offer of something not worth having. I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don’t know anything like enough yet… that I haven’t understood enough… that I can’t know enough… that I am always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn’t have it any other way. And I’d urge you to look at those who tell you, those people who tell you at your age, that you are dead until you believe as they do. What a terrible thing to be telling to children. …and that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority. Don’t think of that as a gift. Think of it as a poisoned chalice. Push it aside however tempting it is. Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come to you that way. [sic] (Christopher Hitchens, William Dembski Versus Christopher Hitchens, 2010)
Hitchens, as do many great intellectuals and free-thinkers, pushes the harm of immortality no better in the aforementioned extract. One mentions him here since he has long since departed from this planet and contributed a good deal to the modern free-thought movement.
Immortality, in a way, is more harmful than good, because it steals the time away from us when it is most needed to motivate us. Mortality gives us perspective. It allows us to set aside much needed effort, focusing us to apply consideration to what we do now. Immortality gives us comfort when it is not needed, security when it is not warranted. Mortality gives us the stress when we need it. Time is the only difference between mortality and immortality, as to the mortal time is god, to the immortal time is merely an illusion. Yet, humanity thinks of itself as a god; humans longs to be immortals. With this said, and the last word made on the matter, one can only end with an extract from Alan Lightman’s beautiful book, Einstein’s Dreams, which was written in 1992. It emphasises the cost of immortality:
With Infinite Life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great-aunts…and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No-one-ever comes into his own…such is the price of immortality. No person is whole. No Person is Free. (Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams, p. 93, 1992)
Knowledge is Power.
Written By: Anthony Avice Du Buisson