“I don’t know if I used this image in the book, but there’s an image from ancient Chinese philosophy that tries to get you to understand how long immortality is. It says, imagine you have a beach with grains of sand—let’s imagine the size of the Sahara—and imagine a bird comes and takes one of the grains of sand and flies off. Ten thousand years later, that bird comes back and takes another grain of sand and flies off—and this happens every ten thousand years. Now, by the time the bird emptied the beach, emptied the entire Sahara, not a millisecond of eternity will have gone by. In other words, you have to realize that immortality lasts a really long time.
Let’s get into some of those specific changes that you think might take place under conditions of immortality. Could real love exist among immortals?
You seem to doubt it—you say that relationships would probably be “shallower.” And my intuition is to say that the intensity that brings lovers together, the passion and the urgency, has something to do with knowing we’re going to die, and that that sort of fervor might not be necessary under conditions of immortality. Is that where you’re going?
Yeah. And I think we can broaden it outside of death here as well, which is that part of loving is the urgency of recognizing that the person that you’re with may not always be there. It may go back to what you were saying earlier, that there’s a solidarity about death that perhaps we share—and share intimately—with someone we love.
If you’re immortal, you can imagine being sad or grieving if a lover leaves you. But if everyone were immortal, then that leaving isn’t necessarily forever. There’s always a chance that you get them back somewhere down the road—you know, in 5, 10, 20,000 years. So I think that the urgency of the moment gets sapped. One of the things that’s crucial to me about love is that it has to be in the moment. Love is not a promissory note. And once you remove some of that urgency, you diminish love.
You could potentially recover your love as an immortal, but you could also suffer at the hands of unrequited love for much, much longer. Imagine that you’re with someone and they leave you for your best friend. That’d be a tough reality to face for eternity.
I’m not sure that that would happen, but mostly because I’m not sure that it happens for most of us now. I mean, a lover leaves us and, sooner or later, most of us recover and go on. So, I don’t think we would project grief that far into the future.
As I talk about these things, one thing that I’m doing is trying to say, imagine ourselves on the basis of the kinds of beings we are now. If the change to immortality would fundamentally change these aspects of us, then of course all bets are off, including whether we can call ourselves the kinds of creatures we are now.
In my mind, one of the features that makes us who we are is our ethical impulse, our desire to know out how to live well. You say that under conditions of immortality, “Even justice would be imperiled. The needs of others would not urge themselves on us in the same way, since their existence would not be threatened by our neglect.”
Obviously it’s true that if we can’t die, we needn’t worry about preventing other people’s deaths. But surely people could still suffer, and I’m wondering whether you think that under conditions of immortality, we would be any less concerned by that.
If I remember Borges’ story The Immortal correctly, there is a point where one of the immortals falls into a ravine or something like that and is left there—
Yeah, for decades. And they said, “Look, we’ll get him, but surely there’s no rush.”
I’m of two minds about that moment. On the one hand, it seems callous in a way that I don’t think one’s immortality would necessarily bequeath. Because if you see somebody suffering, that’s surely going to be reason to stop, to do something to intervene.
On the other hand, I could imagine they’re thinking this: Well, we’ll get him out of the ravine, but it’s just going to bring him back into this shapeless life that he’s in now. So, the difference between the suffering in the ravine and the shapelessness of our lives is not so great as to foster an urgency. And I don’t know what I think about that. In the story, all of the monuments among which the immortals lived were left to erode, because they just didn’t have the meaning that they once had and the immortals said they could always rebuild them back at any time. So, I suspect that was the kind of thought that Borges had in mind when they left the person in the ravine.
Let’s talk about dealing with death. You write, “We know in some sense that we’re going to die. We know that our death will be the end of us, and that death is not an accomplishment or a goal, that it is once inevitable and uncertain, and yet we scurry about under this knowledge as though it had nothing to do with us.”
It’s pretty clear that you think that some sort of confrontation or reconciliation with the reality of death is a good thing, and an important thing, for human beings. I’m wondering what you think that confrontation should actually look like, or whether you think it should look like any particular thing.
I suspect that it has to be, in important ways, individualized, that what will be common to these experiences is the thought—not simply as a cognition but as something that rattles your being—that “I’m going to die.” And I think that can happen for different people in different ways, but it seems to me that that’s a thought that has to take hold of you, in one way or another, in order to confront death. And when it does, then one’s right there.
In the undergraduate seminar on death that I taught, there were moments where we were talking about death, and the students would just go quiet, because it was clear it was there in front of us—each of us individually was right there. But there wasn’t really anything to say at that moment, because each of us just had to look.
I would never teach the course again. I was very fortunate to have a great group of students. It’s hands-down the best course I’ll ever teach. But one of two things would happen: either I would get students who weren’t as good and it would just be a disappointment, or I would get students that were as good, and I’m just not sure I want to go through that again.
You mentioned staying up nights and thinking about it more than you wanted to…
You hear folks say things like, ‘On your deathbed, you won’t wish you’d spent more time in the office,’ and you take up that sentiment in the final chapter and elaborate on it nicely. You write, “Recognizing the fact of one’s death helps one sift through projects in order to separate out those that contribute in some way to making us who we want to be.” A kind of death filter.
And that, I think, is something that people experience themselves. When I was 17, I was operated on—I had a herniated disc—and the guy in the bed across from me was an older man. And at one point, we noticed that he had numbers tattooed on his forearm. He’d been in Auschwitz. He described his relation to life, and he said, “Look, each day—it’s amazing, because I wasn’t supposed to be here. Every day was a day I wasn’t slotted to see.” And what gave him that attitude was the imminence of his own death. It acted like a filter, to use your word, which I think is a good one. It acted like a filter in a very urgent way for him. And I think this is what you’re talking about.
From an interview with philosopher Todd May.
A supplementary point to make in regards to the Borges story: in an eternal existence, everyone would see every one of their friends fall into that ravine — everyone would eventually leave every one of their friends in that ravine, and everyone would eventually help them out. Everyone would spend an eternity in that ravine. Everyone would spend an eternity outside of it. Because in eternity, everything that can possibly happen, will happen, and will happen forever.
I believe this to be philosophically unarguable; yet practically it rings hollow. “How?” is the only question I can pose to this point, a question which is followed by silence. (Just as, in pondering “Why?” or “Why me?”, the universe doesn’t even tender to respond, “Why not?”).
And in this way, the prospect of temporality stretching into eternity is somehow beyond our cognitive abilities, and may be this way in principle. We can reach for it, but we cannot grasp.
When I was 15, I emailed some with Dinesh D’Souza about this point, and he justified his theological conception of time in this way–
“My idea of eternity is being outside of time, not stretching time back and forward infinitely. So I wouldn’t say that the body outlasts death in a temporal sense; rather, I would say that there is a different dimension of existence that outlasts temporal existence.”
So that’s one way of doing it, although it seems like a way of reverse-engineering one’s explanation to fit a foregone conclusion — a process which should, if one is honest, proceed in the opposite direction.
Two more points to add to this rumination on time and immortality:
1. Astronomers first deduced that the observable universe was not infinite in scope by observing that the night sky was dark. If the universe were infinite, they reasoned, the night sky would be completely bright — stars would take up every millimeter of sky — because in an infinitely large universe, there are an infinite number of stars. Just as in an infinitely long time scale, there are an infinite number of iterations of an infinite number of events.
2. That powerful observation from Saul Bellow: “Death is the dark backing a mirror needs before we can see ourselves.”
Some light Monday morning food for thought.
The pictures were taken in Charlottesville, Virginia, New Ulm, Texas, and Ireland.