The Lure of Immortality

Sunday, October 1, 2017
First Aired: 
Sunday, December 7, 2014

What Is It

Would you want to live forever? It's a tempting notion that has been explored and imagined for centuries. Immortality may be desirable, but it may also be that death is a significant part of what gives meaning to life. So what would a society of immortal individuals look like? What might some of the challenges or rewards of an immortal life be? How would living forever affect our relationships with one another, our life goals, or simply the way we perceive time? Would the impacts of immortality ultimately be beneficial or detrimental to us? John and Ken tempt fate with John Fischer from UC Riverside, author of Our Stories: Essays on Life, Death, and Free Will.

Part of our series Visions of Immortality.


Listening Notes

The show opens with John and Ken wondering why a person would ever want to be infinitely old. John brings up that depending on religion and other factors, people have different understandings of immorality. Ken brings up what John calls the ‘western approach,’ that is, a person living in the world for eternity, but this approach also varies: the thought of immortality can also mean resurrection in heaven. Ken finds this approach boring. Living on earth, if disease and suffering could be eliminated, would surely be desirable. John finds this idea selfish, given that there are already too many humans on the planet. Ken says he wants to see human drama grow and develop, but John brings up that human horrors like wars would not be very pleasant to witness. Ken concludes wondering what exactly is the lure of immortality.

John and Ken welcome guest John Fischer, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at UC Riverside and author of Our Stories: Essays on Life, Death, and Free Will. John asks Fischer whether the problem of immortality is a spin-off of the problem of free will. Fischer says it is not; he explains that his grandfather was killed in a concentration camp, and thus he grew up seeing a sense of loss that led him to think about death and immortality. The majority of us want to live more than we actually will, and then some people want to live forever. Ken asks Fischer what it would be like to live forever, assuming a clean and comfortable environment and a lack of disease, poverty, and other factors that are undesirable.

The discussion then turns to whether it follows from human nature that we would not find immortal life on earth desirable. Fischer does not think it follows. He disagrees with philosophers like Heidegger and Bernard Williams and finds that even an immortal life on earth could give individuals opportunities to engage in more fields and to take on more projects. John wonders why somebody – Ted Williams, for example – would want to return to life; when, all else permitting, Williams comes back to life, most people will not remember him, most people will not care, and this, John says, sounds like a life of irrelevancy. Ken brings up Buddhism and the principle of overcoming ego and one’s sense of self and asks Fischer whether it is a disease of the ego to never want to go away.

John and Ken welcome questions from the audience. One of the topics discussed is the problems with cryogenics, which Fischer finds in their creating a tremendous discontinuity in one’s existence. Another discussion point is whether one can live with a particular psychology and personality for an extended period of time or whether these would eventually exhaust themselves, and Fischer explains that as humans we care about a kind of continuity over time.

The question of whether a longer but perhaps aimless life is intrinsically better than a short life that is complete unto itself and where one completes all projects he sets out to do is also brought up, as is the question of whether we can develop infinitely or whether there is a cap to our development.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 6:45): Shuka Kalantari speaks with George Nickel, a filmmaker interested in cryonics, about the practice of freezing bodies for resuscitation at a later point. George’s notion that in 50 to 100 years nanotechnology will have made it possible for bodies frozen via cryonics to revive is discussed, as is the cost of cryonics and neural preservation and the booming of the life extension industry.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 45:30): Ian Shoales wonders whether anything is truly immortal. Are Gods immortal? Then again, Gods from different regions, like the Norse or the Greek, disappear from the cultural dialogue. Vampires, circuses, Michael Jackson, a human mind in a robot – are these mortal or do they live in eternity?