X-Message-Number: 23054
Date: Mon, 8 Dec 2003 14:19:50 -0500
Subject: Re: The Immortal's Dilemma: Deconstructing Eternal Life
From: Allan Randall <>


I posted a critique to this article in their feedback section, which I 
reproduce below for anyone interested. Thanks for bringing the article 
to our attention!



George Hart's defence of mortalism seems rather empty to me... he tries 
to reduce the field to a small number of possibilities where there are 
actually a vast number, and then tries to convince us that there is 
some dilemma in only being able to choose from this small number of 
possibilities that he has picked out for us. It is a rigged game. A few 
specific comments:

(1) There is no reason to discount the possibility of living forever 
and never wanting to die. The result would not need to be anything like 
"eternal bliss"... it could even contain moments of extreme sadness. 
But there is no inconsistency in imagining an infinite life with no 
moments of suicidal thoughts. Suicide simply might not be in such a 
person's nature. I'm not saying that this would be the case for me, but 
thus far in life I've never had a suicidal thought, and I see no reason 
to *assume* given an infinite life that I would have any such thoughts, 
let alone some unacceptable number of them. The infinite sequence 
"01001000100001000001..." contains no two consecutive 1's. If we 
imagine "living" this sequence, perhaps we would have to admit the 
"possibility" of two consecutive ones (since we never have proof that 
the sequence won't suddenly produce two of them), but that does not 
mean that this "possibility" implies that the two 1's will *certainly* 
show up. "Possible" in actual use does not always mean "actually 
physically possible"... it more often means "possible given my current 
state of ignorance". If Hart thinks it means "actually physically 
possible" (as in "will definitely happen given enough time"), then this 
is not a warranted assumption with respect to suicide or suicidal 
thoughts, nor one for which eternal bliss is the only alternative.

(2) Hart says that "the option of termination, to be an option, must 
mean that it is both logically and empirically possible to exercise the 
option". In the "actually physically possible" sense that he means 
this, I think this is a bit of a stretch. An option can still be an 
option with respect to human choice and freedom, even if it is not in 
that person's nature to exercise the option. I can be free to do that 
which is not in my nature to do, and which I will therefore never 
actually do. I am still *free* to do it. At least, this is what people 
ordinarily mean by "being free to choose". If Hart means something else 
by having the "option", then his point becomes rather mundane and, 
well, pointless. The upshot of all this is that there is no 
inconsistency or dilemma involved in the idea of living forever, while 
being free to opt out, but never actually choosing to do so.

(3) Hart seems to assume that a total infinite amount of time spent 
wishing death is unacceptable. He neglects the fact that if such time 
is tiny compared to the amount of time spent loving life, then it could 
be perfectly acceptable. Life for an immortal will *never be* a 
completed infinity. We will never have experienced an infinite amount 
of suicidal thinking. The infinite sequence "00001000010000100001..." 
contains only about 1/5th the number of 1's as 0's after any large but 
finite time period. True, "after an infinite time" it will contain the 
same number of 1's and 0's... but "after an infinite time" is not 
really a meaningful notion. If I am "living" this sequence, I will 
never experience infinite time. I will always have lived a finite 
amount of time... forever. So I will always, forever, be experiencing 
an overall average of 1/5th of the time spent in "1". By analogy, if 
1/1000000th of my time in eternity is spent being unhappy, even 
contemplating suicide, this seems quite acceptable to me. Life is not 
perfectly happy. Why should I require eternal absolute bliss to make 
eternal life worth living? I do not require 100% satisfaction with life 
to make it worth living now, when it is finite, so why should it be any 
different when it is infinite?

(4) Harts says that even if we experience an infinite number of 
blissful moments through eternity, then "eventually the experiences 
must become repetitive. And in eternity the repetition must be 
infinite." By his own admission, this assumes that there is a finite 
limit to mental or neurological capacity. But this is not a valid 
assumption. Note that to allow the possibility of no limit to mental 
capacity does *not* mean we must allow the possibility of infinite 
mental capacity. If I live forever, with my mental capacity growing 
without limit, and the variety of my potential experience growing with 
it exponentially, I will still only ever have a finite neurological 
capacity at any given time. My brain will never become infinite.

(5) Hart argues that if one's mental capacity increases to allow one to 
remember enough of one's life to make immortality meaningful, then one 
will necessarily become so different as to not be oneself anymore. 
Hence, one will eventually become essentially a different person, 
anyway, given enough time, if one does not actually die or just fade 
away. But he provides no real argument for this... it is just a bald 
assertion. Right now I am very different from when I was 5, but I still 
feel a strong sense of ego-coherence with that 5 year old. To some 
extent, self-identity is an "illusion" anyway, but then so are all our 
mental constructs to some extent. If I feel after a trillion trillion 
years (or whatever) that I am the same person, and I self-identify with 
this past self, having legitimate memories of being that self, then who 
is Hart to say I have become a "different" person due solely to the 
extent of my change? Personal growth and change is already part of the 
human equation, and we don't think it makes us "mortal", just because 
we have changed alot from when we were 5! Keep in mind, that if our 
minds are expanding as time goes on, our ability to maintain 
ego-coherence in the face of passing time might also expand. This is 
very speculative, of course, but no more so than Hart's claim that the 
ego will necessarily decohere. We need a better theory of consciousness 
and self-identity to really answer such questions, I think.

(6) Hart says that "over time, each experience becomes less 
significant, literally to an infinitesimal degree". But even if we 
accept his mathematical model of "experience significance", the state 
of "infinitesimal significance" will never actually be reached. Each of 
an ever-expanding list of experiences could each still maintain some 
degree of significance. But quite aside from this, his model is 
arbitrary. If our capacity expands, our ability to place significance 
on individual events in the face of an increasing number of memories 
might well expand as well. Again, this increasing mental capacity in no 
way implies any point in time at which we have infinite capacity, or an 
infinite number of experiences to deal with.

(7) The oft-repeated statement that it is mortality that "frames" life 
and gives it meaning is, of course, a value statement, based on 
personal aesthetics, and not really open to rational debate, at least 
not at this time. One might argue, of course, that the immortalist is 
just kidding himself, and if actually presented with immortality, would 
find his life losing much of its meaning just as the mortalist had 
claimed. But, until some sort of immortality becomes a reality, this is 
pure speculation. Likewise, the immortalist might claim that, once 
presented with the real possibility of immortality, the mortalist would 
actually grab it with gusto, and it would end up enhancing the meaning 
in his life, and that his mortalism will turn out to have been simply 
sour grapes all along. Again, however, this is equally speculative. My 
own opinion is that such mortalists are playing the sour grapes game... 
but that is just a hunch and one I cannot back up. Certainly, Hart's 
feeling that the thought of a trillion or trillion trillion years of 
life is "mind-numbing and nauseating" is a personal aesthetic I don't 
share. I love life, do not want it to end, and think a trillion years 
of it would likely be not only meaningful and intensely fulfilling, but 
quite a lot of fun! A "trillion trillion" years I have a harder time 
conceiving of in my imagination, as it is such a vast span of time, but 
I see no reason to presume that it could not also be fulfilling and 
happy, perhaps in ways I cannot currently conceive of.

(8) Hart does not outright state, but comes close to assuming in 
places, that a belief or hope in immortality implies a belief that 
mortal life is meaningless. Just to be clear: not everyone who believes 
in or hopes for immortality believes that a mortal life is meaningless. 
I hope for immortality, but would still consider a mortal life of 75 
years to be shot through with meaning, and potentially very fulfilling. 
It is because I find mortal life so meaningful and fulfilling that I 
would like to extend it as much as possible, and make it that much more 
meaningful and fulfilling. Death would be a tragic end to a meaningful 
life, and thus something to be avoided, but not something that robs 
life of any meaning at all. Hart says "Yet it appears when it is all 
said and done, there is no version of personal immortality that can 
supply a meaningful life that a mortal existence could not also 
supply." I think he has failed to show why immortality might not 
provide a *more* meaningful and fulfilling life. But I'd agree with him 
if all he means is that life can be meaningful even in the face of 
death (although his piece seems generally much more pro-death than just 

(9) "It is our mortality that makes life precious and intentional 
killing especially wrong." Hart stays away from ethics for the most 
part, but this brief reference to it I find the most bizarre part of 
the essay. Why would the ability to live forever make life less 
precious or less worth preserving or murder any less heinous (presuming 
it were still possible)? He does not elaborate or defend the remark to 
any significant extent, so I can only puzzle over why he would believe 
such a thing.

(10) A note on terminology: many people consider that immortality with 
the option of opting out is still "immortality", even if the person 
does eventually opt out. The word "immortal" does not have the absolute 
connotations that "eternal life" has, of necessarily meaning absolutely 
infinite life. It often allows for more limited notions like "at least 
as long as the universe itself exists", or "as long as the person 
chooses" or even just "with no definite time limit". Hart, for much of 
his essay, seems to be addressing an extremely absolutist idea of 
immortality, so it might be clearer to say that he is talking about the 
concept of "eternal life" rather than "immortality". On the other hand, 
his closing comments do seem to me to place value on a known and 
definable time limit to life.

Hart does provide an interesting and articulate initial set of 
positions for the immortalist to argue against. But I do not think he 
succeeds as yet in actually arguing very far for most of them.

Allan Randall, , http://www.elea.org/
"Whatever can be thought of or spoken of necessarily IS, since it is 
possible for it to be, but it is not possible for NOTHING to be." -- 
Parmenides of Elea, c. 475 B.C.

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