Why Do People Fear Immortality?

The Fountain of Eternal Life in Cleveland, Ohio.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I think death should be optional. Yet I always encounter resistance when introducing this idea to others. Why is that? There are many reasons. For some, the idea that we should choose whether to live or die contradicts religious beliefs or seems impossible. For others, death is thought to be natural or what gives life meaning. And fiction often portrays being immortal as bad because it:

1) will be boring.
2) will leave you trapped, unable to die if you so choose.
3) will involve a loss of your humanity.
4) will involve hurting others in order to attain it.
5) will destroy the environment.
6) will sever our connection with the natural process of dying.

My guess is that negative views of the future are more exciting, selling more books and movie tickets than descriptions of utopias. But think of it this way. About ten generations ago the average life expectancy in most of the world was about thirty years. If someone told you then that they could triple that lifespan, would you voice the above concerns? I doubt it. Some people will be bad or bored or destructive because they live longer, Some are like that now. But for others with age comes more understanding, kindness, and wisdom. Yes, there are bored, horrific people in the world, but that is not connected with how long they live. Some people are just horrible.

Now suppose we tripled the lifespan again? Say an average healthy lifespan becomes 250 years. What would change? I can’t say for sure but I don’t think life would necessarily get worse. In fact, knowing our lives would be longer might force us to better cooperate with others and preserve the environment. If we are going to be alive when the ecosystem is ruined, we might be more likely to care for it.

Of course, if we had the option to live forever that would be different. That would create different questions some of which I’ve tried to answer previously. So let’s continue to increase our lifespans and see what happens.

Note. – I have answered a common objection that increased longevity will result in overpopulation here and here.

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17 thoughts on “Why Do People Fear Immortality?

  1. I can offer another argument based on my own outlook. I derive strength from ever-closer union with reality, especially with the biosphere. It’s a variation on the Buddhist yearning to “become one with everything”. [Have you heard the one about the Buddhist lama saying, “Make me one with everything!” to which the street vendor replies: “Coming up: one red-hot dog with the works!”]

    The cycle of life and death is a fundamental part of nature. If I were to defy this cycle, I would distance myself from nature, depriving me of my strength. I therefore acknowledge the need to die. However, I echo St. Augustine: “Lord, let me die, just not yet.”

  2. Have given this much consideration and have concluded that it would be good to live long and prosper, but who wishes to live eternally under a Trump? Count me out on the latter.

  3. As for nature, I’ll quote from “The African Queen”

    Charlie Allnut : What are you being so mean for, Miss? A man takes a drop too much once in a while, it’s only human nature.

    Rose Sayer : Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.

  4. claims no. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, seemed so comical to me, that I laughed.

    My immediate claim and arguments are these: these people are just big talkers. If they knew with absolute certainty that they were shortly going to die, say of a fatal disease, an accident, or someone completely insane would be pointing a gun in their face, and they were asked by, say, a mysterious voice : ” You have 5 seconds: you can die now, or in the next few days, or you can choose to be immortal, what is your choice?”, I would be very curious to see what they would choose.

    Of course, if they were so delusional that after they die, they would “go to Heaven”, then MAYBE they would choose to die, but I strongly doubt it.

    Interestingly, I am reading a new book by Viktor Frankl (well, a collection of lectures titled “Yes to life despite everything “, and he presents an argument “against” immortality that I had not thought about or heard before, i.e. that if we were immortal, we would postpone everything, instead of hurrying up and get things done. I thought that was an interesting point, you probably already contemplated that, but for me it was something new.

    Thanks for your article!
    PS. of course, Frankl did not speak against immortality, and personally I think he was in favour of it (after all, how much death had he seen, felt, lived, and observed?). But in the lecture he gives an argument against it to comfort the audience, I believe.

  5. Had another thought after I wrote the previous comments. Schopenhauer wrote somewhere that “we all regard death as something external to as, as something that can only happen to others”. I have been thinking about how true this is, i.e. most people THINK they got death figured out. But for the rest of us, we always learn something new about it. Over and over, I say to myself: “Wow, I thought I had thought about this a lot, learned about it a lot, even followed Epictetus ‘s advice: think of death every day. And still I feel like I don’t know enough about it.”.

    And this is what I think about these people who present these rather (to me) ridiculous claims about how if we were immortal we would burn all the trees, etc.

    But let me go briefly through these simplistic claims of theirs, as if I were speaking to them. I am just jotting down whatever comes to mind.

    1. “It will be boring.”.

    Maybe. Maybe not. It will be boring if you are boring. And if you were boring as a mortal, maybe even immortality would not be much of an improvement for you. So, in the same way as there’s boring mortals (the majority) and a few people who try to learn something, I think that it would not be too different for immortal beings: most of them would probably be boring, because immortality, I presume, is not a guarantee for having a fertile mind and a lot of imagination. We aren’t talking here about intellect, but about having the ability of not dying.

    2. ” will leave you trapped, unable to die if you so choose”

    Which leads to the question: why would you choose that? Granted, if I were an imagination- starved being, I’d probably would find immortality intolerable. However, I personally think I would find many things to do, such as exploring the deepest recesses of the universe, for example.

    So if your main problem with immortality would be wanting to die but being unable to, I can only imagine this would be because you would be unable to do anything interesting at all. Besides, fear not: you would have all eternity to find a way to die.

    3. “It will involve a loss of your humanity”.

    We would first have to specify what you mean by that, but, hey, sign me up, regardless. I’d rather be immortal, than human! Any day. That is the whole point! But maybe you mean I would become a sort of being with no feelings? I would be willing to take that risk, but it is strange that you speak as if you were immortal already. How do you know that what you claim, would be the case? And why do you relate immortality to a lack of “humanity” ?

    4. It will involve hurting others in order to attain it.

    That seems very confusing. Why do you think you would have to obtain it by hurting others? Do you mean that you would be a mortal living in an environment of immortals from which you can “steal” their immortality from, as if , say, you were stealing a wallet from someone, or mugging them?

    5) “will destroy the environment.”

    You are telling me that you would be IMMORTAL and still have learned nothing about the environment you live in? Look, I’d just love to be immortal. Not an immortal fool. Quite the contrary: a smart immortal.

    6)”It will sever our connection with the natural process of dying”.

    Ha ha. This is probably so funny, I don’t need to say anything. It’s just amusing. Look, I’d like to be immortal, so that I don’t die, i.e. so that I AVOID its “natural process”, as you call it. I’ll put it that way: to me, being mortal is a kind of low paid job. Being immortal, to me, would be like being a billionaire. If I were a plumber, say, and I’d be offered an incredibly highly paid (honest) job, I don’t think I’d have regrets about my plumbing. But you, you think that dying is something quite positive, so I’ll leave you with a quote by Seneca:

    “No need to be keen. Don’t worry. Death will find you soon enough.”.

  6. I have replied to that type of argument previously. Here is my rejoinder in brief.

    “…many people claim that the prospect of our deaths actually makes life more meaningful by creating in us an urgency to live meaningfully now. But this isn’t true for everyone. Some people know their lives will be short and still live meaningless lives while others have good reasons to believe they will live long lives and still live meaningfully. Moreover, even if our imminent deaths focused us in this way that doesn’t justify all the meaning lost by our being dead.”

    I have also discussed death and meaning in great detail at the link below

    https://reasonandmeaning.com/2018/11/11/a-philosophers-lifelong-search-for-meaning-part-4-death-and-meaning4/

  7. Schopenhauer was right again, one of the early Psychiatrists said something to the effect that, as no one living has himself died yet, why should he want to do that?, he knows that you are dying, but as for himself, well he knows intellectually that he ‘may’ die ‘someday’ he just doesn’t know it emotionally, he has been alive for all the history that he knows personally so why should he want to or have to die just because you do? You don’t live in his immortal body, he does, and things look different form his point of view!

    ” About ten generations ago the average life expectancy in most of the world was about thirty years.”
    The operative word is ‘Average’ because many died in childhood, this was harsh Darwinian Selection and those who lived through it were our hardy forefathers who had the strength to build the foundations of the World we live in now! As for ‘who we are now’ we should leave that for another discussion.

    Since no one has, as yet, demonstrated any talent in staying alive for even one hundred and fifty years years, let alone eternity, it seems that this is just conjecture, wishful thinking, The person going to Heaven and the eternal Liver have the same goal, they don’t want to leave their lives, one trusts his belief and devotion to something he called God to save him and the other believes, with equal devotion, in something he calls Science, something that also will ‘eventually’ conquer death!

    Who is going to win this race, will Jesus come back first and Save Us All or will Science conquer death first?
    Personally I wouldn’t like to bet, at this point they both seem to have about the same chance for success!
    Should you still be alive at that time and are a better and you bet on the winner! The payoff will be huge! Living forever in a heaven on Earth with lots of Money, it doesn’t get any better than that! That is the Future I want for myself!

  8. You’re forgetting something, Mr. Russell:
    the double-mindedness of so many. (Not schizophrenia, as they can function well.)
    —-
    Even people who are opposed to radically extended lifespans [REL]—not ‘immortality’—want their kin, friends and even their ethnic groups, to live as long as possible regardless if they are opposed to REL. And even citizens violently opposed to government want govt to subsidize their favored people to the very maximum, with other citizen’s funds. Such is a prime example of cognitive dissonance.
    —-
    Again, not ‘immortality’ but, rather, REL.

  9. @A. Brooks
    I’m not against people living as long as they can Al, I’m trying to live as long as I can and I’m sure people have always lived as long as they could. It is human nature to try and live forever!
    Now as for REL, if that is what you want ( The collective You, not only you personally) and you have the money, well why not, if it can be made to work! and it doesn’t require the sacrifice of the innocent!
    I’m not against anyone having and following their dreams Al. Perhaps these things will become real in the future? Should you have predicted Television and the Internet in the relatively recent past you would have at best been seen as a Nutter! Yet here they are, so, we can never say never and even if we do, that won’t stop the, as yet, unknown future from unfolding!
    Is skepticism a consequence of ignorance? Perhaps, but it could also be a consequence of a fear of what the future will bring! I think the latter is where my problems lie!

  10. I agree with all of what you say here, John. I believe I sent you a copy of my sci-fi novel that is intended to thrill and excite people into *wanting* to live indefinitely. Have a look at that when you’ve finished your own publishing project. (Blurb coming soon…)

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