Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Myth of Stagnation

The philosopher Bernard Williams once wrote a piece on “The Tedium of Immortality”. Although I have long thought his view reeked of sour grapes, he expressed similar sentiments to those I’ve heard many times over the years. “The Myth of Stagnation” is my rebuttal to those sentiments.

This is a slightly-edited excerpt from a chapter (“The Psychology of Forever”) I wrote back in 1996, but which has never been published. Although I might write some of it a little differently today, I haven’t changed my views about any of the ideas expressed here. You will find this essay along with related thoughts as a chapter in the forthcoming book, Death and Anti-Death Volume 7, edited by Charles Tandy.

"Growing old is no more than a bad habit which a busy man has no time to form."
AndrĂ© Maurois, The Art of Living, “The Art of Growing Old” (1940).

Life is good, some will grant. Life offers numerous paths and possibilities. But isn’t life good only because it is limited in length? If we lived indefinitely, potentially forever, wouldn’t we eventually stagnate, lose interest, become bored?

Certainly this belief has been pushed at us for centuries through stories, from Jonathan Swift’s Struldbruggs in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Eugene Sue’s The Wandering Jew (1844-5), and Karel Capek’s The Makropoulos Secret (1925), to more recent tales as presented in John Boorman’s 1974 movie Zardoz.

The world of Zardoz, set in the distant future, has been divided into two realms: the Vortex, where dwell the immortals, and the Outlands, home to the short-lived Brutals. The decadent, impotent immortals have lost their vitality. An especially intelligent Brutal, played by Sean Connery, invades the Vortex, introducing chaos, destroying their society, and returning the immortals to a natural state. That is: dead. Even in the heroic Highlander movie, the grand prize for the sole surviving immortal (“There can be only one!”) is wisdom-with-death.

I suspect this cultural tendency to see indefinite lifespan or potential immortality as a curse serves as a psychological defense against the historically undeniable fact of human mortality. So long as mortality was an unalterable part of the human condition, it was understandable if we fooled ourselves into believing that physical immortality would be dreadful. I am suggesting that mortality no longer need be accepted as inevitable. If indefinitely extended longevity is achievable, continuing to cling to the immortality-as-curse myth can only destroy us.

To begin uncovering the errors fueling opposition to extreme longevity, consider first the distinction between seeking immortality and seeking indefinite lifespan. Suppose we were to grant that we might become bored of life, whether it be centuries, millennia, or eons from now. We might even grant that boredom was inevitable given a sufficiently extended life. Granting these suppositions for now, what follows? Only that literal immortality—living forever—would not be desirable. But forever is infinitely longer than a billion years. If there were, in principle, some limit to the length of a stimulating, challenging, rewarding life, we could not know where it lies until we reached it.

If immortality should not be a goal, indefinitely long lifespan can be. If, one day we find ourselves drained, if we can think of nothing more to do and our current activities seem pointless, we will have the option of ending our lives. Alternatively, we might change ourselves so radically that, although someone continues to live, it’s unclear that it’s us. But we cannot know in advance when we will reach that point. To throw away what may be a vastly long stretch of joyful living on the basis that forever must bring boredom and stagnation would be a terrible error.

Stagnation sets in when motion ceases. Motion, change, and growth form the core of living. We will stagnate if we either run out of the energy to stay in the flow of life, or if we exhaust all the possibilities. I suggest that while some people run out of energy at any age, doing so is not inevitable. I further suggest that life’s possibilities are literally unbounded. Certainly we can see this to be true for millennia to come.

Theoretically arguments from physics, cosmology, and computer science indicate that even true immortality and infinite variety cannot be ruled out. First, then, why do many people run out of energy and settle into a stagnant decline? If we survey the diversity of personalities around us, one thing will become clear: People get bored because they become boring.

Sadly many people don’t wait for old age to become boring. The prospect of extended longevity repels them since even their current lives are dull. What makes them become weary? They make themselves that way in several ways.

Continue on the full text of this essay.