Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 11, 2021, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/death/v-1
We might think that the concept of immortality is the concept of never dying. However, this would be slightly misleading since it would imply that non-biological objects such as rocks and bricks, atoms and planets, numbers and properties, are all immortal: since they never live, they never die. It would also be misleading to suppose that the concept of immortality is the concept of living at some time but never dying, since this would also have odd implications. Consider a living thing that goes into eternal suspended animation. It never dies, but this sort of immortality is hardly better than death. It is better, therefore, to take the concept of immortality to be the concept of living forever. This seems more interesting, and is probably closer to the concept that has been discussed.
Some say that eternal life would be a great blessing – something of unsurpassable value. Perhaps they reason as follows: life is good; more of a good thing is always better than less; therefore eternal life is exceedingly good. But others (most notably Bernard Williams) have argued that eternal life could not possibly be desirable. Williams considers several possible ‘models’ of eternal life. On one, a person (identified as ‘E.M.’) remains eternally at the same biological age (in his example, the age is forty-two). Williams claims that after a few hundred years, this person would inevitably become bored with life. The boredom is inevitable, he insists, in virtue of the fact that ‘everything that could happen and make sense to one particular human being of 42 had already happened to her’ (1973: 90).
On another model we imagine that E.M. does not remain at a constant biological age of forty-two, and does not retain a certain character. Rather, we imagine that E.M. lives out an endless succession of different lives, each with a new character and personality. In this way, E.M. avoids the tedium of the first model. Williams suggests that this is not a model on which a single person lives forever. Rather, it is a model on which a series of distinct persons live. Thus, it has no bearing on the question of the desirability of eternal life.
It could be argued, however, that Williams has neglected certain important possibilities. One is the possibility that there are activities whose pleasure does not decrease with repetition. Another is that people may grow and change gradually over time, and thereby come to have new interests without losing their identities as individuals. Such growth might make it possible for a single individual to live forever without falling into the tedium that might result from steadfast pursuit of just one interest over an endless stretch of time.
Feldman, Fred. Immortality. Death, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N011-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/death/v-1/sections/immortality-1.
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