Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The House of the Immortals

Death is something that has fascinated mankind since its conception, capturing us in a sort of inspirational fear of the unknown that has formed a prison around our ways of thinking since the foundations of the first civilisations were set. At least, that is one way to look at it. Regardless, I think that it would be accurate to say that anybody who thinks about the world in which we inhabit will at some point or another come to think about death, even if they only consider it in brief. Death has always been a limitation on our lives and thus, all people throughout history have had some conception of immortality or deathlessness. Ancient cultures had their immortal Gods who, though they could be killed by men or one another, were not slaves to the years as were we. Not only that, but within more modern literature, we have immortality examined in newer ways. Even today, in our western world of convenience and longevity, we are fascinated by the concept of death.

Thus, in this entry I wish to examine in brief the concept of immortality from a practical and philosophical perspective. Firstly, then, I think it is prudent to separate two slightly different concepts: immortality and invulnerability. Though they can be defined in different terms and could be considered to be synonyms by some standards, for the purposes of this entry, we shall treat immortality as being immunity from aging, meaning that an individual will not grow old and die, but they could still be murdered or die due to disease. Conversely, we will consider invulnerability as being complete immunity from harm or trauma of all kinds, including that of age.

There are two thought experiments I am to reference in this entry, the first having been published in Philosophy Now (Issue 89 of March/April 2012) by Nick Bostrom. It is named “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant” and basically paints the picture of a world in which death takes the form of a great draconian beast. Follow the link provided if you wish to read it in full. To summarise the central themes of this thought experiment, the central idea is that death is something that should be overcome and that we should not simply sit back and accept it as being a natural end if there is the possibility to undo it. The main conclusion of Bostrom’s argument is that we have a moral imperative to save human lives, which means that we must do all that we can to ensure that people live for as long as possible. According to the fable, we should view death as being evil and that if we do not perceive it as thus, then we are simply being foolish and attempting to delude ourselves so as to become more content with the situation we are trapped in.

There are several things that I disagree with concerning his arguments which go with this Fable. Mainly, Bostrom uses this story to assert the point that death is evil and that aging itself causes high amounts of pain and suffering in the world. To argue that all suffering is evil is, for me at least, an unstable view to hold, for there are some forms of suffering, both physical and emotional which we simply must experience throughout life in order to learn properly. Suffering teaches us some of the greatest lessons in our lives, it gives us experience and perspective, not to mention providing us with compassion for one another. Whereas science may one day provide humanity with immortality, I think it is even more unlikely that they will be able to prevent suffering, for no matter how many changes we make, there must always be some suffering in the world.

Also, the general point of the article seems to be that we have a moral imperative to preserve life. Why? We must seek to preserve life, so says Bostrom’s article, because it is generally better for people to have their lives saved rather than to die. There is a great amount of simplicity in this argument, and though simple arguments are often satisfactory, if not preferable, to the more complex arguments, I find this argument entirely unsatisfactory. This comes from a purely quantities standpoint, which basically argues that the more years a person lives the better. How we should approach this is the more years a person lives the greater chance that they will be better, for we cannot simply say that one person has had a better life than another based entirely on the number of years that they have lived. To do so is a gross oversimplification, for it completely ignores the quality of each individual life.

How can be consider the quality of life, then? I think that the best way to do this is to look at it from an existential point of view. What imparts meaning to our lives could be considered to be what we do with our time and the projects we devote ourselves to. In life, we are constantly in a race against time to complete our projects because we know that overall our time is limited, due to death as well as other factors. If we look at our second thought experiment (“The Makropulos Case” by Bernard Williams) we can see that immortality would be an anathema to the purpose of our lives. In this thought experiment, a woman achieves immortality, but finds it entirely unsatisfactory, for it prevents her from feeling any drive to finish her projects. Thus, she decides to give up on life, and her life is shaped by her quest to die. This highlights the fact that without the imposed limitations of nature, without a sure end to our lives, we would likely grow complacent, giving up on our projects. As outlined in our existential approach, without these projects and dedications of our time, life itself can quickly become meaningless.

If life is meaningless, it therefore has no value and without value, it would be incorrect to say that we have a moral imperative to save lives. Therefore, whilst we do have a moral imperative to save lives as best we can at the moment, if we were to undo death itself, then we would quickly find our lives to be without meaning or value and therefore worthless. Worthless lives have no intrinsic value and therefore do not come with a moral imperative to be lengthened. In a sentence, we could say that without death our lives are not really lives but existences which are dragged out for as long as possible, with nothing to motivate us into action.

Thus, we can conclude that rid ourselves of death would in turn rid us of true life. Naturally, this could go into much more detail, but that is my basic thoughts on the matter.

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