Cryonics #125, vol.12, no.2, February 1991.
The oddest arguments are used to support the view that death has its proper place. Even some philosophers, renowned for questioning everything, are apologists for death. Bernard Williams, in his essay “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality,” is a case in point.
Williams grants that death is indeed to be regarded as an evil. Even so we should be glad that we die, for an unending life would be devoid of meaning. Williams supports this view by appealing to a play by Karel Capek which concerns a woman named Elina Makropulos who has lived 342 years. “Her unending life has come to a state of boredom, indifference and coldness. Everything is joyless.” She refuses to take the immortality serum again and dies.
In claiming that an immortal life would be meaningless, Williams is saying that life would be devoid of interest, joy, or freshness; it would be a life of boredom and stagnant repetition. Makropulos stays at the apparent age of 42, and she maintains the same character throughout her life. She has become bored because all the things that could happen to a woman of 42 have happened to her. Williams believes that this result is not an accident of her particular character; it’s an inevitable consequence of living too long. He concludes that we should hope to die before reaching this unavoidable point of stagnation and dullness. He worries that technical progress may thrust upon us this unattractive prospect. Williams has expressed his views on a British documentary about life extension and cryonics. Since Williams now resides in Berkeley, California, let’s hope that he doesn’t sit on any committee setting regulations for gerontological or cryonics research!
Williams is presupposing one or both of two things: either that I must have an unchanging character if it is really me who lives forever, or that if I avoid boredom by changing then the changed person is not me. Relying on these assumptions he gets to the conclusion that I must necessarily become horribly bored with living. For me to live forever, rather than being replaced by someone different, I must remain unchanged. But someone who remains unchanged must become bored and their life must lose meaning. While I agree that an unchanging person going through an unchanging routine would become bored and life would pale, I reject the idea that we must stay the same to survive eternally, and I reject the idea that we must become bored or that we could ever run out of new experiences and activities.
Actually, even unchanging persons might escape boredom. Perhaps there would be drugs capable of making repeated experiences seem perpetually fresh and exciting. Regardless of this, clearly we will not stay the same. We will change psychologically, neurologically, biologically, and our social, scientific, artistic, and recreational contexts will change.
William’s argument is weakened by his heavy reliance on the implausible character of Elina Makropulos. This woman never matured, grew or changed. She did the same things in the 20th Century as in the 17th. We immortalists, if we become immortal or close to it, need not stagnate. Makropulos’s problem is one shared by some of the deathists around us: She couldn’t enjoy life and so found the prospect of more life an intolerable burden. Other people, including all the cryonicists and immortalists I’ve met, enjoy life now despite its tribulations, and can be expected to continue wanting more of it. Some people will never be attracted to cryonics as a good idea for themselves because they feel burdened by any amount of life.
Whether we ever stagnate is up to us. There will never be a shortage of new activities, new understanding, and new experiences. Perhaps we might one day come to know a completed physics and chemistry, though even this is denied by some theorists. But we cannot exhaust the technological applications of those physical laws. There will always be innovative art -music, graphic art, writing, dance, and forms as yet unconceived. There are no limits to the personal relationships we can create and develop. There is no limit to the social forms we can develop, and no limit to the games we can invent.
In the early universe there was an evolution of physical law; this was followed by chemical evolution, then biological, psychological, social, scientific, artistic and intellectual evolution. Why should we expect an upper limit to new forms of evolution? And if there is no such limit then stagnation is unnecessary. As our lives expand and we pass from human to transhuman to posthuman, we will not only transform our knowledge and social forms, we will change our environment, and change our selves. We cannot expect to forever keep unmodified human bodies and brains.
We will give ourselves penetrating new senses, keener intelligence, superior memory, and perhaps even migrate out of biology into another form of life (the uploading hypothesis). We may even create new universes by harnessing the forces that brought forth our universe 15 billion years ago. Williams’ parochial view of our future existence contrasts starkly with those held by cryonicists, immortalists, transhumanists, extropians, and Venturists.
Although we will change radically over time still we will be the same person in the sense that matters. My self of 1991 will be qualitatively different from my self of the year 5220, yet I am the same person because of a continuity across time. Not only do some of my basic values remain over long periods but the self that I am now explains and causes the self it becomes. It is not as if my future self kills off my earlier self. So long as I change in ways that do not destroy continuity, I can continue to exist through massive changes in personality, values, interests, goals and abilities.
We can look forward to an infinite process of transformation and improvement with no fear of an inevitable boredom and meaninglessness. There is no guarantee of being engaged with life, but ennui has to do with laziness rather than the availability of too much time.