Collective Immortality: Living on Through Others

02 November 2015

This week we're talking about Collective Immortality – living on through others.   Collective immortality refers to the fact that although each of us individually is going to die, the species as a whole will endure – if not forever, then at least for a very long time.  

The subtitle is a little misleading,  I have to admit,  since we’re not really talking about the continuation of your individual life through the species.   That would be a sort of pseudo-immortality – not the real thing, in any case.   As Woody Allen puts it   “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work.  I want to achieve immortality through not dying.  I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen.  I want to live on in my apartment. “   Though frankly, being confined for an eternity to even a really nice Manhattan apartment like his would actually get pretty boring after awhile, I imagine.

Humor aside, I think Allen is trying to make the deeper point that the prospect of death threatens to saps life of meaning and “living on through others” doesn’t change that fact.   But I actually think Woody may have that wrong.   I don't think that the prospect of death saps life of meaning.  People dread death, to be sure, especially a premature death.  But that does not mean that they want to live forever. But dreading death is consistent with living with purpose and determination, even in the face of death.   Indeed, the prospect of death is what gives urgency to our lives.  We have one very short life to live.  There are no do overs.  So we cannot afford to waste it.  Carpe Diem!  Seize this one, solitary day that you have been given.  Suck all that goodness and sweetness out if that you possibly can.

What would really strip our lives of meaning, would be if we knew that nobody at all would live on after we die.   Now it may not be immediately obvious why one should care whether other people live on after you yourself die.   At a minimum, though, one tends to care about one’s children living on after you and about the many other people you hold near and dear.  But those, of course, are people in whose continued existence one has a personal stake of some sort.   When we talk about collective immortality, we’re talking about people on into the distant future, to whom no one currently living will have any real personal connection whatsoever.  Why should we care about them?

To see why let’s do a little thought experiment to test that claim.  Suppose that tomorrow, out of the blue, some virus from outer space causes every living human being to be infertile.   From that day forward, no new people will ever be born.  Slowly, but inexorably, we will all die out.  It’s admittedly a pretty gruesome thought experiment.  But it enables us to raise some deep and important questions. Take me, for instance.  I’ve been trying to finish three different books for what is beginning to seem like forever now.  If I knew there were no new people ever to be born henceforth, would I keep trying to finish all those books?  Should I?  What would be the point? There’s going to be nobody around to read and appreciate my brilliance.   

I’m tempted to say that I would keep writing them for my own sake and because I would want to achieve some measure of closer in these long-standing projects of mine.  But why would closure matter so much?   Indeed, the thought of the precious books I’ve devoted my life to writing, sitting on some dusty library shelf, never to be read by another human being, nothing more than food for worms fills me with a deep sense of dread.   And it kind of undermines my confidence that they would be  worth writing in the first place.   But if that’s right, it seems as though I may have a stake – a quite personal stake – in the existence of future generations of utter strangers.

Still, although I’m willing to grant that some of the things we do, we do with an eye toward the distant future – a future that doesn’t contain us, or anyone we love.  But it’s just not true that everything that gives our lives meaning in the here and now is hostage to the existence of future generations.   Think of the pleasures of a fine meal, or a beautiful sunset, or the company of one’s dearest friends.   Those things contribute to the meaningfulness of our lives.  And they would still do so, even if we knew that we were the last people on earth. 

I suppose that one could worry whether there could actually be a life – a well-lived and meaningful life – that consisted wholly of such pleasure.  So much of human life is bound up with the existence of future generations.  So much of what we do would simply lose its point if we knew there were no more people to come.    In our hypothetical thought experiment, for example, after awhile, there would be no point of training to be an elementary school teacher or a pediatrician if there no new people were being born.

I guess the real question is one of proportions.   How much of our lives are essentially bound up with the existence of future generations?  Are those aspects of our lives that are bound up with the existence of future generations things we could easily do without?  Or are they essential parts of what it is to be a human being so that without them we would cease to be recognizable to ourselves? 

These are the sorts of questions we address in this episode.    We’d love to have you add your voice to the discussion. 

Comments (7)

sanjay's picture


Wednesday, November 4, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

After reading your article a

After reading your article a word Traveler comes to my mind.Human goes through different stages of life after birth, childhood to teenage, teenage to maturity or adulthood then to old age and after that to death which is the ultimate.Woody allen wants to achieve immortality by living in his apartment which is not a bad thought but if it is achieveble.Being realistic is the best way to keep things simple and happy in life.Its an old saying Moderation is Good so in a same way Living in a moderation is Good and living forever would only bring sickness, miseries and never ending life. As it was advised to A king by his priest that you would live the longest life in your family and kingdom and in return King promoted his priest to the Head of Temple.Another priest went and said to the King you would witness the death of your parents children and grand children .uncle and aunts and you would be responsible to arrange  their funeral as being a Head of the Family and you would not be able to stop any of this. A King got furious and ordered him to hang to death.So reality remains the same but are we  ready to accept the whole reality or just what we wishes to.
 Mr Ken as you have described that you are working on three books which leaves with a question that satisfaction is something in completing a one project which is close to your heart or working on a unfinished many projects. Stillness is important as it helps to focus on one project than to be on many active at the same time.Stllness is the key of satisfaction. Ones accomplishment or brilliance is judged by others not by himself as  even mirror shows us what we want to see and every one is Damn good Looking.....
A closure Why is important to some or to anyone. As closure is related to End or Final achievement.The day we get the closure it means we have acheived everything and understood so its time to move on as we have nothing more to witness or contribute to life.History is a witness that even Alexander The Great could not manage to finish his journey and died on a way back to home to GreeceWhich means he died with the unaccomplished desire.A contribution to society is more important than closure as closure is for yourself only.
A life is meaningful as long as  we don't associate ourselves with the future which is a mystery to us.Meaningful life is what we have not what we don't and we should try to make the most of it.
The world will keep going on and we are travelers/visitor in this life who are here to contribute as much as we can without thinking of anything in return and Living forever brings me a question, If we can not achieve or contribute in the best of 70 years of our life, what do we expect to acheive after that??????????
Well this the first time i have written so expect many flaws in it................
Await for your reply and i am open for critiques....

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, November 5, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

I suppose collective

I suppose collective immortality is a fine notion, altruistically speaking. But, it does little, I suspect, for the devotee who hopes for a positive conclusion to the question of individual life-after-death. There are still many who hold such hope,for any of several reasons---including probably those aspired by Woody Allen (boredom notwithstanding). Well, I happened upon the book by Dinesh D'Souza: Life After Death, The Evidence. Although the evidence presented by D'Souza was varied and, to some perhaps, persuasive, it was largely circumstantial and certainly anecdotal. In the fullness of time, we shall all know either the fulfilling truth or the heartbreaking lie. That fulfilling truth would be, in modern hyperbole, awesome. Contrariwise, the heartbreaking lie would have little effect at all. When you are dead lies can no longer hurt you.

momookim's picture


Sunday, November 8, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

This post reminds me of a

This post reminds me of a talk I heard last year by Samuel Scheffler about caring about future generations. Imagine a skeptic who doubts that they care about future generations. What can we say to that person to convince them to care? I can see two plausible lines of reasoning. The first would be to explain to that person that they do in fact already care about future generations. We could point to their ongoing projects, goals, and ambitions, and we could demonstrate how they would be unintelligible or otherwise meaningless if future generations didn't exist. If Ken were the skeptic, we could point to his three book projects as evidence that he cares. The other line of reasoning strikes at a deeper level, showing why the skeptic should care, insofar as it is rational to care. I think I'm borrowing here from some of Nagel's arguments in The Possibility of Altruism. The skeptic would likely be able to point to things that she values, perhaps something off of Ken's list: "the pleasures of a fine meal, or a beautiful sunset, or the company of one?s dearest friends." And as Ken adds, "Those things contribute to the meaningfulness of our lives." These things contribute to the worth of the skeptic's life. But, in admitting this, the skeptic must also cede that there is nothing specific about his life that makes these activities valuable only for him. These activities add value, because they are value-adding activities for people. So as long there are people and valuable activities in the future, the skeptic will admit there will be valuable lives in future generations. And if the skeptic must accept there will be valuable lives in future generations, she would be remiss to not care about them by at least intellectually acknowledging them. While this sketch is not comprehensive, I find it pretty interesting and somewhat compelling.

N. Bogdanov's picture

N. Bogdanov

Wednesday, November 11, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

What strikes me first is the

What strikes me first is the thought that if we knew that no one would live on after our death, our lives would really be stripped of their meaning. The truth of this statement, however, seems contingent on the value of our life necessarily being tied up with others in the first place and second with the existence of others after us. Ken?s thought experiment around his books is one example of such value. At the same time, Ken acknowledges that not all values are of this sort, citing the consumption of a good meal or the enjoyment of good company. These activities are valuable for us in the moment, regardless of what happens in the future. And so, as Ken concludes, the question would seem to turn on a question of proportions. Can you live a truly meaningful life that consisted only of such types of value?
From an existentialist perspective, I?m initially tempted to respond that, indeed, that is the only way you could live meaningfully! For under such a perspective there is not an essence to, nor any inherent meaning within, anything, including our lives. Instead, it is us and solely us who can breathe value into both our lives and the world around us. Now, of course, one could act in such a way as to make valuable the collective existence of humans after our death. And under such a model he or she would live a life that is similar to one for whom there is some sort of objective value to others? lives. In this way, my initial temptation is mistaken. Yet, there remains an important distinction between these two lives. Under the existentialist view there is an absence of necessary connection between a meaningful life and holding value in others? future existence. One may choose whether and how they subscribe to such a view. And this is an important freedom, I think.
Mo?s comment, indeed drawing on The Possibility of Altruism, pulls me strongly as well, however. I love Nagel?s argument in this book and find it compelling as a means of generating at least intellectual respect for others. I wonder how Nagel?s view would mesh with the existentialist? Perhaps a discussion for another time.

Alyosha's picture


Friday, November 20, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

The approach you articulate

The approach you articulate has nothing to do with altruism. It is oriented to trying to find solace in fame. Good luck with that!

BG's picture


Thursday, June 21, 2018 -- 10:22 AM

Fascinating discussion. I

Fascinating discussion. I have a couple of different thoughts. Despite the sense of meaninglessness derived from the thought experiment, I find myself still drawn to the problem of the Absurd and the solution of finding Passion. In layperson’s slang, “Might as well party while you’re here!” Maybe there would be no point to transhumanism, and much would change practically (e.g., no need for schoolteachers after a certain time), but one could still work to find passion through mindfulness. A second, more pragmatic, thought comes to mind when discussing immortality in general: existential risks. Life seems to be accelerating nowadays through exponential change. What happens if we cannot adapt to such overload? Through the immortality fantasy, we build it faster and faster as if it cannot backfire. I have been reading of the increasing suicide rates. Could it be that in the new disconnect there are more people who seek Philosophical Suicide?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, June 24, 2018 -- 11:09 AM

When I was in my mid-forties,

When I was in my mid-forties, a few years after marrying for the second(and most certainly, the last) time, I had, for a time, regrets about never siring children. A mid-life crisis? I suppose so, but the regrets were natural enough, given the social contract under which I (and so many others)had been raised, and the genetic imperative for procreation. Now that I am much older, and secure in the knowledge that there is a better than good chance my family line will continue via my older brother's contributions, I no longer give serious thought to this conundrum. In short, I now think immortality would become tedious at best. I have learned as much as I could and contributed, where it was allowed. To think that children of mine would have been a priceless contribution to the continuance of humankind, on the basis of any superior genes, is mere vain imagining. Contrary to Einstein's assertion, God DOES play dice. And roulette...