Would you want to live forever? Are there upsides or downsides to this? Those are some questions we will consider on this episode of the Sci Phi Show
- Star Trek: TNG, The Neutral Zone
- Star Trek: Voyager, Death Wish
- Immortality in Fiction
- The West Minister Confession
- Albert Camus
- The Myth of Sisyphus
- C.S. Lewis
Worth picking up
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Immortality, What is it and is there a downside? That is the question we will consider on this episode of the Sci Phi Show
The quest for immortality is an old one among humans, many of the worlds religions seek or promise it and groups like the Transhumanists seek some form of it in the here and now. The story of the Garden of Eden tells of mans fall and of his becoming mortal after he is cast out and cut of from the Tree of Life and the Transhumanists seek to move us to a posthuman state that seeks radical human life extension if not actual immortality. But is immortality a a gift or a curse? J.R.R Tolkiens elves in the Lord of the Rings envy the mortality of humans, the Marvel hero Wolverine regards his immortality as a curse and in the second season of Voyager we find ourselves confronted with a suicidal Q in Death Wish. It seems that everybody wants to live forever except for the those that actually do! What are we to make of these mixed messages?
So what does it mean to be immortal? In its most basic sense to be immortal means to not be mortal, to have an unbounded, at least potentially infinite lifespan. This doesn't necessarily mean that immortals cannot die although it usually does mean they do not age in the same way a mortal does. Many examples of immortals in fiction can die in many circumstances, they can die if they suffer a sufficiently catastrophic injury and sometimes they can even fall prey to the ravages of disease. Sometimes immortals are much more resistant to damage than mortals and heal much more quickly. Wolverine is the obvious example of this but the immortals of Asgard seem to be immortal in a similar way. They can die but they are very hard to kill. Sometimes the immortality is conditional on sustenance. The Wraiths of the Pegasus galaxy like Vampires on Earth are potentially immortal provided they are able to maintain a regular supply of human beings to feed upon. In the movie Death Becomes her a pair of vain socialites are given a drug that stops them aging and makes them immortal in a sense. They do however die and their bodies begin to fall apart but they are effectively unkillable no matter what. This makes for some great scenes as they try to keep their bodies in a useable state. This idea was explored in a less comedic and much more horrible fashion in the Torchwood miniseries “Miracle Day” with characters horribly mangled and crushed but unable to die. There was a similar idea explored in an episode of the Twilight Zone where death takes a day off.
Different religious traditions promise immortality to believers in different ways. I've found these different approaches quite interesting. The Eastern religious traditions tend to posit some sort of reincarnation, a cycle of lives that ends with a dissolution of the individual back into some sort of consciousness of creation or god depending on the exact tradition. It seems ultimately they see immortality of the conscious variety to be a curse. In the Islamic tradition they posit eternal life in some sort of paradise, a land of milk and honey and other sensual delights, a sort of perfected existence of this world. The Christian tradition proposes something interesting. It promises eternal life and as the WestMinister Confession puts it, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever” suggesting that immortality by itself is insufficient.
There are two Star Trek episodes that i thought captured this quest and the implications of it in an interesting way. At the end of the first season of Star Trek The Next generation, in an episode called The Neutral Zone, we find a group of humans who have been cryogenically frozen upon death to await a future time when they can be revived and healed from whatever killed or as killing them. These people struggle to deal with the future they find themselves in, but what really caught my attention was the reaction of the Enterprises crew to these peoples quest for immortality. Picard treats the quest as misguided and foolish saying that a life has meaning at least in part because it ends. If you recall the episode Times Arrow from an earlier show, Data expressed a similar sentiment when his head was discovered and he knew that at some future time he would die. So is this true? Does a life have to be finite to have meaning? Does a life have to go on without end to have meaning? Is this the wrong question to ask?
In Deathwish from Season 2 of Voyager we meet a suicidal Q who has been imprisoned by the Continuum because of a persistent desire to die stemming from existential ennui that he can find no relief from. He has done everything, experienced everything and reached a point where he can see no point continuing on. Is this an inevitable condition? Is there a limit to how much a being can experience before they wish to experience no more? Is that limit different for different people? The idea of living forever is initially appealing but the possibility of this unrelenting boredom with existence is a bit of a concern. Even an immortal with the currently paltry lifespan of Wolverine seems to suffer from this along with the constant burden of having to watch everyone he cares for age and die. That would have to take a psychological toll over time.
It has been said by some that life can have no meaning without immortality, that a finite life winks out in the darkness and is seen to have no point or purpose. However as we see from explorations of immortality in fiction, unending existence can easily result in a life that longs fir the finitude and certainty of an end. So where does this leave us? It seems that the critic that observes that a finite existence does cause a void of meaning and purpose that leads to despair needs to deal with the idea that an immortal existence will suffer from a spiritual ennui that will be at least as bad and lead to the same if not worse place. At least the mortal can always ed their own existence. Although the drive for immortality of some sort is strong in people but few of us will be remembered long beyond our own death. Few of us are likely to be a Socrates or a Plato, a Moses or a Muhammad and even those voices are only thousands of years old. There is the alternative route of becoming a Hitler or a Caligula, do deeds so evil they a unlikely to be quickly forgotten, but even that seems difficult to plan. It seems that mortal lives are destined to inevitably fade from the pages of history.
If living forever is a doomed enterprise because of the inevitable grind of immortality and dying and being forgotten renders your existence irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, what are we left with? The existentialist philosopher Albert Camus used the tale of the mortal Sisyphus, punished by the gods to set the scene of what we are faced with and what we should do about it. Sisyphus was cursed by the gods to push a rock up a hill forever only to have it roll down thd other side, a futile and unending endeavor. Camus saw this as the perfect metaphor for life, a pointless and absurd trial. Camus thought the only question of any significance in life is whether or not to commit suicide. Camus ultimately concluded the answer was to embrace the absurdity of existence and struggle against the inevitable.
This does raise a rather peculiar question though. C.S Lewis put it this way …
The Christin says ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.”
So where does this leave us? Is immortality a gift or a curse? Does life need to come to an end to be meaningful or does it require endless duration to be meaningful? Is this the wrong question to ask? One observation that i thought was interesting was that the ennui and desire for and end of the earthy immortal is in a sense the christian conception of hell. Cut off from God, the source of all that is good for all eternity. There are other visions but if the science fiction authors are right about the ennui and despair that is inevitably a feature of this worldly immortality then even a very mild eternal hell, even a very good one by earthly standards would still be a place best avoided if at all possible.
So would you want to live forever? Would it depend on the terms of the immortality? You can find more information on the different ideas contained in this episode in the show notes on sciphishow.com. I can be reached with comments via firstname.lastname@example.org, you can leave comment in the show notes at sciphishow.com and you can also leave comments on our Facebook page Facebook.com/sciphishow, you can also follow the show via thesciphishow on twitter. If there is a topic you would like me to look into please don”t hesitateeee to ask. And don't forget, it's Phi with a P H.
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