Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Susan Ertz (1894-1985), Anger in the Sky, 1943
Do you want everyone to live forever? Your own immortality might have an outside chance at being a good thing, as long as everyone else isn’t immortal too. It may be fun if you’re the only one – for a while anyway. After a few centuries, it might get old, so to speak. For immortals, “bored to death” may transform from an exaggerated expression into a bitter desire.
Nobody likes to die, but death makes things happen. Without the temporal limit of death, life would stagnate. Death makes us do things. Death makes us care. Death makes us value life.
Imagine the ramifications of immortality, of knowing that there will never be a moment’s rest or respite from eternal existence.
Besides, amid eternity, what goals or motivations could one have? How relevant would anything be? Eventually, hours, years, eons would all blur together, rendering existence an endeavor in obscurity. It would be like being in a race with no finish – no winners, no losers, no anything … just existence for existence’s sake. Under such conditions, what would prevent one from losing interest, from slowing down, from no longer pushing oneself to achieve? In such a light, what would achievement even mean? Perhaps it’s better this way, better to burn quick and bright than forever dim. Perhaps without death, life would intrinsically lack luster and meaning.
Matthew Alper, The “God” Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God, 2006 (ellipsis in original)
The great physicist Max Planck said:
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
Max Planck (1858-1947), 1948, Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers, translated by F. Gaynor, 1949
This quote has often been paraphrased as “Science advances one funeral at a time” or “Truth never triumphs – its opponents just die out.” In fact, human progress advances one funeral at a time. If humans were immortal, progress would only happen through murder and suicide, assuming either was possible. Currently, human nature is such that we should all be glad that no one is immortal, and especially glad that everyone is not immortal.
Why would the expectation of an afterlife, or any kind of immortality, lead people to believe there is meaning and value to their lives? Permanence is not meaning. Why should a finite life or the eventual slow whimpering death of the universe cause despair, or a loss of meaning and value? Infinitude is not value. The unending tedium of immortality would be a kind of oblivion at best and a kind of hell at worst. Eternal bliss is a selfish, foolish, childish fantasy – a distraction from real life.
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.
Woody Allen (1935-), The Illustrated Woody Allen Reader, 1993
It’s time to face the facts: death is permanent and immortality is a crock. Death is the reality and immortality is the fantasy. Death cannot be overcome simply by inventing words. Immortality is a false consolation to the grieving and fearful. Immortality does not provide direction or purpose – it robs life of direction and purpose by making it irrelevant, nothing more than a prelude to death and a glorious eternal stay in heaven. Daily life is just an obstacle on the path to eternal life, or a tedious waiting room before the afterlife. What a sad way to live.
The more we believe we have immortal souls, the less we value our precious mortal lives. It’s a fraudulent exchange of the real for the imaginary. It’s a rejection of a unique opportunity and a misuse of the gift of life. It’s squandering the chance of a lifetime. It’s a tragic waste of life.
O my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible.
Pindar (c. 522-443 BCE), Pythian iii, Pythian Victory Odes
The concept of the soul must die. The hope for immortality must die. Unhealthy illusions must die. Death is certain and utterly final. Dead is dead. From the ashes of the soul rise a love for humanity and rational hope for its future. The end of death will be the end of humanity – we will have been transformed into another species, which may or may not be an improvement. Time will tell.
What’s needed is a dose of reality and a practical, down-to-earth, human approach:
The skeptic has no illusions about life, nor a vain belief in the promise of immortality. Since this life here and now is all we can know, our most reasonable option is to live it fully.
Paul Kurtz (1925-2012), The Transcendental Temptation, 1986
We can achieve a kind of immortality by living lives worth remembering. That’s as good as it gets, whether we like it or not.
More good advice worth repeating:
What shall we know of our death? Either the soul is immortal and we shall not die, or it perishes with the flesh and we shall not know that we are dead. Live, then, as if you were eternal, and do not believe that your life has changed merely because it seems proved that the Earth is empty. You do not live in the Earth, you live in yourself.
André Maurois (1885-1967), essay, On the Meaning of Life, Will Durant, 1932
I do not believe in immortality, and have no desire for it. The belief in it issues from the puerile egos of inferior men. In its Christian form it is little more than a device for getting revenge upon those who are having a better time on this earth. What the meaning of human life may be I don’t know: I incline to suspect that it has none. All I know about it is that, to me at least, it is very amusing while it lasts. Even its troubles, indeed, can be amusing. Moreover, they tend to foster the human qualities that I admire most – courage and its analogues. The noblest man, I think, is that one who fights God, and triumphs over Him. I have had little of this to do. When I die I shall be content to vanish into nothingness. No show, however good, could conceivably be good for ever.
H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), letter, On the Meaning of Life, Will Durant, 1932
Immortality allows people to shirk moral responsibility in this life – instead their focus is on the blissful afterlife, which defocuses everyday human existence. There’s a reason immortality is one letter away from immorality:
Belief in unseen, eternal, and divine realities ultimately distracts us from our own humanity. Transcendentalism dehumanizes us by feeding selfish craving. If we embrace a worldview that pivots on the idea that we will attain immortality, then we are going to be overly concerned with our soul’s protection and its future fate. We become more concerned with saving our own souls than valuing and attending to the needs of those around us. Simply put, belief in a soul and a heaven of blissful happiness actually makes you less ethical in this life.
Stephen T. Asma (1966-), “Against Transcendentalism: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and Buddhism”, Monty Python and Philosophy: Nudge Nudge, Think Think!, edited by Gary L. Hardcastle, George A. Reisch, 2006
Immortality is for chumps – often the same chumps that make us thankful for mortality. Wishing to live longer is one thing, but wishing to live forever is a selfish dream that, if realized, would eventually become a living nightmare. Every utopia becomes a dystopia, every paradise a prison, every pleasure a bore, and every heaven a hell. And when fantasy finally meets reality, everyone needs an off switch.
Not only is there no guarantee of the temporal immortality of the human soul, that is to say of its eternal survival after death; but, in any case, this assumption completely fails to accomplish the purpose for which it has always been intended. Or is some riddle solved by my surviving forever? Is not this eternal life itself as much a riddle as our present life? The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), 6.4312, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922