The question of immortality has pervaded throughout every era, stumping the most provocative thinkers and innovators alike. With the industrial revolution laying the groundwork for numerous medical and technological breakthroughs, it is incumbent upon we the people to educate ourselves and think through these difficult topics. The following paper will assume medical immortality as a desirable opportunity to further knowledge and help others (Fischer & Mitchell-Yellin, 363).
To begin, one of the earliest arguments concerning death and dying comes from the stoic philosopher Epicurus and his disciple Lucretius. As a materialist philosopher—believing the soul is material—and an annihilationist, meaning after one dies they cease to exist forever, Epicurus suggests, as written in the slides, “nothing can be bad for one who does not experience it as bad” (Mitchell-Yellin, 2017). Lucretius continues this thought with his symmetry argument, which states in the same way we do not remember or worry over our eternal state before our birth, neither should we worry about that which is found in death, for it is the absence of consciousness and nothing more. However these are huge assumptions.
However this could all be avoided if one were to live forever. Death could possibly become a thing of the past if medical advancements and technological innovation usurped nature’s course. Bernard Williams presents the curious case of Elina “EM” Makropulos. In the story, her father presents to her an elixir that delays death for three centuries. After living for 342 years, “Her unending life has come to a state of boredom, indifference, and coldness. She refuses to take the elixir again…[and] dies” (Williams, 74). Williams continues to suggest that while death may be a universal evil, this isn’t necessarily so since death can be the finality of a long, boring, cold life filled with suffering and despair.
Now, the primary argument proposed by Williams is predicated on the assumption that death is not to be feared: “But if death is annihilation…there is nothing to fear” (75). He finalizes the explanation of the argument with the phrase, “death is nothing to us, and does not matter at all” (75). It seems he is saying that death is bad for those who consider death to be an evil—that is, an impediment to their satisfaction—and is a good to those like EM. Therefore, the perception of death is relative and contingent upon the status of the person’s life. However, this argument is utilitarian and a slippery slope.
In the slides, Ben Mitchell-Yellin breaks down the basics of the two fundamental desires proposed by Williams: conditional desire is “something one wants only on the assumption one is going to be alive” (e.g. food, water, hunger, sex, etc.) while categorical desire is “something one wants unconditionally, and which gives one a reason to continue living—propels one into the future” (e.g. cure hunger, cancer, poverty, etc.) (2017). In “Immortality and Boredom,” Ben Mitchell-Yellin and fellow colleague John Martin Fischer aim to debunk the Necessary Boredom Thesis (353). The authors list two types of boredom: content-boredom (355) and motivation-boredom (361). Content-boredom posits after one has lived for a long period of time, like EM, they will have achieved everything they wanted to achieve, exhausted every measure of their mind, thus concluding their creative purpose. Shelly Kagan echoes Borges’s reflection of Bacon’s quotation of Socrates and King Solomon, “Nothing is new under the sun” (Borges, 105; Eccles. 1:9). Meanwhile, motivation-boredom suggests since time is at one’s disposal, the immortal person will lack urgency to achieve anything. However to contest these two ideas, the authors introduce two subcategories within the categorical desires section: self-focused and other-focused desires (Fischer & Mitchell-Yellin, 356).
Concerning self-focused desires as a motive for continued living to combat content-boredom, one could very well continue to live simply because they enjoy living, they don’t want to die, they want to indulge in more activities or accrue more wealth (356). However, other-focused desires tend to be more impactful (e.g. cure hunger, cancer, poverty, etc.) (357-358). Moreover, with medical immortality at modernity’s doorstep, this negates the Necessary Boredom Thesis since the world around them will gradually disintegrate. One may desire to visit the Sphinx or the pyramids in Egypt, rear their children, see the melting glaciers, and so on (Fischer & Mitchell-Yellin, 367). Plus, the potential for immediate death by external means is still plausible. Therefore, it is entirely preposterous to suggest one could exhaust their creative measures since new diseases, new ideas, and new discoveries are made every day, always leaving room for improvement (358).
On a separate note, if living forever is the norm, wouldn’t everyone be ignorant of death? Rather than fearing it, it would cease to exist in conversation, thus disqualifying it as an evil to worried about. In other words, if technology and medicine advances as it has for the past two centuries, wouldn’t the prolongation of life be a good? For instance, the average life span of a human used to be 45 (Emanuel, 2014). Now it is roughly 78. In the older movie The Incredibles, Syndrome, the main characters’ arch nemesis and anti-hero, said, “If everyone’s super, no one will be” (Bird, 2004).
In conclusion, by analyzing the fundamental arguments concerning the fear of death and the Necessary Boredom Thesis, I have attempted to convey a positive message for medical immortality. Lastly, as noted, the continual existence—not prolonged senescence—of immortal beings is not stymied by motivational-boredom and content-boredom if and so long as the person avoids the temptation of self-focused living.