Todd May has a short essay on death at the New York Times‘s Happy Days blog. The argument is age-old (so to speak), but he reiterates it in a concise, compelling, and beautiful way:

Immortality lasts a long time. It is not for nothing that in his story “The Immortal” Jorge Luis Borges pictures the immortal characters as unconcerned with their lives or their surroundings. Once you’ve followed your passion — playing the saxophone, loving men or women, traveling, writing poetry — for, say, 10,000 years, it will likely begin to lose its grip. There may be more to say or to do than anyone can ever accomplish. But each of us develops particular interests, engages in particular pursuits. When we have been at them long enough, we are likely to find ourselves just filling time. In the case of immortality, an inexhaustible period of time.
And when there is always time for everything, there is no urgency for anything. It may well be that life is not long enough. But it is equally true that a life without limits would lose the beauty of its moments. It would become boring, but more deeply it would become shapeless. Just one damn thing after another.
This is the paradox death imposes upon us: it grants us the possibility of a meaningful life even as it takes it away. It gives us the promise of each moment, even as it threatens to steal that moment, or at least reminds us that some time our moments will be gone. It allows each moment to insist upon itself, because there are only a limited number of them. And none of us knows how many.
Well put. But wouldn’t Todd May’s argument about the importance of omnipresent death in shaping our lives become somewhat twisted and strained if it actually were possible to halt aging (as life extension advocates believe will someday be possible)? It is one thing to argue for the wisdom of accepting death when it is an inevitability. But it would be very different to make a positive case for death when it is no longer inevitable.
In his blog post, May notes that “it is precisely because we cannot control when we will die, and know only that we will, that we can look upon our lives with the seriousness they merit.” But, although we can already decide to die if we so choose, might it not be much harder to look upon our lives with the same seriousness if we had to control when we died? Whatever the choice, our lives would take on a farcical quality, either from the emptiness of living without limits or the tragic absurdity of choosing to die rather than face that prospect.
(Hat tip: Brian Boyd)
[Image: “Q” from Star Trek: The Next Generation, portrayed by John de Lancie]


  1. Standard transhumanist replies here:

    The Meaning That Immortality Gives To Life

    Complex Novelty

    May the fair-minded reader judge for themselves whether these critiques presented as unanswerable and stopping points in themselves, would actually require quite a lot more analysis to count as knockdown. May the fair-minded reader judge for themselves whether the transhumanist answers to these criticisms ought to have been refuted or at least presented alongside these supposedly knockdown criticisms.

    The ball has been hit firmly back into the bioconservative side of the court; transhumanists await, not very hopefully, a refutation, response, or even acknowledgment.

  2. I had another thought about this guy and his article. He is saying essentially that we place too much emphasis on future time orientation and that we should all learn to live more for the now. Then he suggests eastern metaphysics as the way to learn to live for the now.

    Well hell! Why do I need eastern metaphysics for this? I could move into the "hood" of any U.S. city and take up the live for the now life-style. Or I could just get into clubbing and nightlife for the same purpose.

    This guy comes across to me as endorsing the hedonistic live for the now life-style. I thought the lack of future time orientation on the part of many of us, especially kids, was considered to be a problem. It's nice to see someone argue that its no problem at all.

  3. I agree with you Kurt. Living the "now" lifestyle is a big problem for teens and young adult. I know people close to me that have no jobs, go to bars every weeks and take the rest of their times to play computer games. When you live the "now" you risk ending up with no ambitions and completely miss the track.

  4. Kurt, we look forward to reading your treatise on the socioeconomic merits of post-mortality someday. In the meantime, we welcome your comments here.

    And thanks for the SENS link. Aubrey de Grey deserves credit for acknowledging the objections to his view and for trying to respond to those objections. But it seems like a pretty shaky analysis. In a new post here on Futurisms, Charlie Rubin looks at one of de Grey's points — his discussion of the potential problem of immortal tyrants — and picks apart its logic and assumptions.

  5. @EliezerYudkowsky: The respective effects of mortality and immortality cannot be compared as easily as you depict. Our understanding of mortality derives from wisdom gained through the lived history of our species. We understand less about immortality not due to a lack of effort but because our only resources for understanding it are thought experiments and pure speculation. It is possible that mortality is not necessary for the various important aspects of life that you highlight; but the fact that these positive aspects of life have not needed to be engineered for most of human history, and that we would suddenly be faced with the burden of contriving means of maintaining them, means that the problem would be vastly more complex than you depict.

  6. @Kurt9, Simon:
    There's an important distinction to be drawn — which May doesn't make clear enough — between present-hedonistic and present-holistic time orientations. The first is obvious enough. But the second, which he's in favor of, is very different, and very difficult to even explain. I'll simply refer you gents, if you're interested, to "The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life" by Zimbardo and Boyd (no relation).

  7. Brian,

    Thanks, but no thanks. If I have to choose between the two, I prefer present-hedonism to present-holism. Of course, I prefer a proper balance between present-hedonism and future-time-orientation to any other choice.

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