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!
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