Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Do you want to live forever?

Thinking a little in advance of this afternoon's Socrates Café ... The question we'll be considering is "Would immortality be good for me?"

There are lots of details one might want to nail down before trying to answer this question. For example, will I stay in more or less the physical state I'm in now, or keep aging (a la David Bowie in The Hunger)? Are others immortal too, or is it just me? (If others are immortal, will the birth rate end up creating a real problem for us?) Do I still get to retire at 65? Will Social Security still be around when I'm 1000?

Details, details.

Let's imagine for a moment that I won't have to deal with the ravages of aging, and that I don't need to worry about money or over-population. What are my intuitions about immortality now?

I suddenly have a lot more time to get those big projects done (plant and tend the garden, catch up on my reading, write a book, learn Russian, etc.). I get really tired of racing to meet deadlines, so maybe this would be a good thing. Of course, racing to meet those deadlines is often what gets me off my butt to do stuff in the first place. Would I become much less productive -- much less motivated to even start a project -- if I had all the time in the world?

Also, while some things I do (such as good class discussions, visits with friends, etc.) seem to fly right by, temporally, others seem to last forever. What if I really had an eternity of committee meetings and laundry and commute time? Would this really be an improvement?

If I was the only person who was immortal, I'd undoubtedly get pretty bummed, watching all my family members and friends die. Sure, I'd have the chance to get to know my great-great-great-great-grandchildren, but eventually they'd die, too. Forming attachments to new people might get harder and harder, after having lost so many people I've cared about. Either I'd set myself to be hurt yet again or I'd have to forego the pleasure of forming a real attachment to other people.

On the plus side, I'd outlive all my enemies.

If everyone gets immortality, I don't have to watch the people I care about die. Instead, I get to deal with them in perpetuity. This might be a mixed blessing. How many marriages could survive immortality? How many families would stay estranged from each other if there's no kind of time pressure to mend fences?

Wouldn't it get boring? I mean, honestly, once you've gotten to know me, it's not like I have that much additional material to work with. After 100 years, you're already going to have a pretty good guess as to how I'll react to X. Could you handle 1000 years of that kind of predictability? 1,000,000?

Maybe you could fill the time with new experiences (line dancing, sky diving, running for office, doing prison time, etc.), but eventually, wouldn't you run out of new things to experience? Maybe people could create new things to experience, but wouldn't these experiences end up feeling like desperate attempts to fill the time? (Think of the programing on VH-1; aren't we on our way down this road already?)

I guess my big concern with immortality is that having it might somehow undermine what makes my life worthwhile in the first place. Maybe my life gets its value, in part, from the fact that it's finite.

I'm not trying to advance a scarce-resource pseudo-economic argument here. But I suspect we live differently when we're aware that the clock is ticking, and that a certain awareness that the clock is ticking might prompt us to live in ways that are richer and more fulfilling than some of the ways we might live if there was no death.

I'm curious to hear what others think about this!

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Philosophical items, post Terri Schiavo.

A couple of interesting entries that connect to the Terri Schiavo case in different ways.

Andrew at Universal Acid tries to work out why our dying wishes -- and especially, our wishes for what happens after we are dead or otherwise bereft of awareness -- matter to us.

Lucretius would say, you want to dance a jig on my grave? Why should I care? Once I'm dead there's no "me" left to take offense. But most of us don't react this way. Andrew discusses why this could be.

Chris at Mixing Memory discusses "higher brain death" as a criterion for when someone is really dead.

The distinction Chris is working on is one between bodies that still count as persons and bodies where the person has died (because of the cessation of higher brain function). He suggest that there's more to personhood (and the ethical constraints that come with it) than just having a heart that pumps blood or nerves that transmit signals.

This distinction might leave us in an awkward position with respect to certain disabled persons (even some not as badly impaired as Terri Shiavo was) ... which is why I find myself returning to Peter Singer's construction of personhood (at least as I read him) a little bit easier to swallow.

Thanks to Inessentialism.org's Philosophers' Carnival for bringing these entries to my attention.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Thinking about Schopenhauer

Over at Philosophy Talk they've been thinking about Schopenhauer. Check out Ken Taylor's post on Schopenhauer's pessimism about human life and John Martin Fischer's post on why pre-birth nonexistence doesn't bug us nearly as much as post-death nonexistence.

And, for those who like opening the vault, another of my blogs has my own take on the Will to Live described by Schopenhauer. (It's in the entry from September 23, 2003; scroll down and you'll find it. Sadly, Xanga makes it fairly inconvenient to link to particular posts.)

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Where's the time?

Mercy me, the rat-race has come for the children. It's not only students (and, of course, "responsible adults") who are stretched too thin by the demands on their time. This conversation makes me want to cry. In part, I think it's because my childhood didn't seem quite that busy. (Well, maybe it did by the time I was in high school. But by then, all the demands on my time served the useful purpose of keeping me out of screaming matches with my parents.)

I'm all for doing the work of trying to live a meaningful life, but it seems to me that a lot of the work that gets piled on us (and that we pile on ourselves) isn't leading that direction. My kindergartener has homework 4 nights a week. I am thrilled that there is actual learning going on in kindergarten, but some of this stuff seems to be aimed less at developing a love of learning and more at doing well on the state-mandated standardized test. Which, for the record, I think is pretty crappy. Because if there's one thing I'm pretty sure of, it's that the value of our lives will not be measured by our test scores.

Rather than ranting about the short-sightedness of choosing our activities according to what gets the best results on the stinkin' tests (because if I got started on that rant, I might never stop -- and that would be a bad use of my scarce time), I want to think about why "play" gets such short shrift. Why must every single thing we do lead in some obvious way toward fulfilling a practical goal or yielding a tangible payoff? Why must we feel guilty and wasteful for having fun? Isn't having fun valuable to us? Isn't it possible that enjoying our activities for themselves, rather than as instruments that are supposed to lead us to something Really Important, is good for us, and might make us better people?

Play gives us some space. It lets us try stuff, not because it's part of some great plan, but just to see what happens. Play lets us recharge our batteries. And, it gives us the opportunity to pull back from our big projects and be reflective about them.

(At the same time, I worry a little bit about turning play into "mandatory fun" -- Ohmigod I need to clear my schedule for play today or else bad things will happen, and if I don't get to it that's one more thing to feel guilty about. Could it be that the slackers were onto something?)

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