In the long run, we are all dead.
– John Maynard Keynes
What is the point of it all, then?
Death, defined by American philosopher Thomas Nagel as the unequivocal and permanent end to our existence, is widely regarded as undesirable, primarily because it deprives us of life, and brings to an end all the valuable pleasures and sources of enjoyment that life offers. It seems to naturally follow that immortality should therefore be highly sought after, especially since one would no longer be subject to the deprivations that death demands.
Yet, should our conclusions on the desirability of both death and immortality necessarily be so intuitive?
The Tedium of Immortality
In contemplating this question, it is perhaps useful to draw reference to a play by Czech writer, Karel Čapek, titled The Makropulos Case. Reflecting on the potential tedium of immortality, the play depicts the protagonist, Elina Makropulos, having consumed a mysterious elixir of life as per her father’s instructions for the past three centuries, thereby enabling her to live well beyond the average life span of a human-being. At age 342, Elina’s seemingly endless life causes her to be in a state of perpetual boredom, indifference, and coldness – everything has become joyless to her. In fact, she laments: ‘in the end it is the same’. The play ends with Elina’s inevitable death owing to her refusal to take the elixir again.
The case of Makropulos, albeit fictional, suggests that death may not necessarily be undesirable, hinting at the possible benefits of not having to live an unending life. To imagine an endless life, where conceivable at all, would indubitably lead one to realise that the immortal man would ultimately face an incurable state of extreme ennui not unlike that of Elina’s.
Our Evolving Experience of Time
In the same vein, much has been debated on the perceived acceleration in terms of the passing of time as human-beings age. In Principles of Psychology, William James remarked on the increasing monotony of life with each birthday that passes us by:
The same space of time seems shorter as we grow older. Each passing year converts some of our experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all.
A mathematical perspective from which to consider this perceived phenomenon is that our experience of time is proportional to our age. That is, a year as experienced by a ten-year-old child is far greater in vibrancy, diversity, and novelty as compared to that of a centenarian, for one year represents 10% of the child’s existence, whereas for the centenarian, a mere 1%.
Extending this logic to that of the immortal man, an additional year of experience, in stark contrast to the infinite length of his life, would then seem to be even more insignificant and minuscule. His engagement in any activity (out of a finite, constrained set of possible activities) would then appear to be meaningless, superfluous, even, one that he must have experienced multiple times before in his preceding multitude of years. Such a scenario is poignantly depicted by Friedrich Nietzsche in The Gay Science:
This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you… The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!
In Economics, the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns states that as a person increases his consumption of a particular product, the marginal satisfaction (returns) he derives from consuming every additional unit of that product would decrease correspondingly. Based on this train of thought, the immortal man would therefore eventually arrive at a particular point where an additional year of experience would no longer yield any further utility to himself.
The Impact of the Idea of Immortality
Beyond the seemingly incurable state of restlessness that is bound to befall the immortal man, perhaps what lurks even more sinisterly in the background is the impact the idea of immortality can have on one’s perspectives and approach to life.
Immortality possesses the power to irrevocably alter one’s attitudes on life, as the motivation to strive hard towards meaningful goals can appear to be much less urgent or critical given that the finite time constraint of a life span is now whisked away. The immortal man enjoys the luxury of limitless time in which he can pursue his goals, thereby leaving ample time for procrastination and redemption. This presents a loss of value creation not only to himself but also to the society at large: the cumulative opportunity cost in terms of the delay, or more likely, the acute loss of original contributions would indeed be staggering.
Our Mortality as Motivation
In light of this, death, by contrast, serves to remind us of the humbling state of our mortality, and thus drives us to make better use of the limited, valuable time we have on this earth to make a lasting impact in the world through ways we – individually and collectively – are able and desire to. Rather than being seen as a limiting factor depriving us of opportunities, death can instead be perceived as a form of liberalisation from the fetters of that which are undesirable to us.
Most of all, it is our very mortality that serves as a sobering reminder, sometimes in the form of a near-death encounter while on board a precarious flight miles away from home, one that we oftentimes forget as we become caught up in the humdrum of our daily lives, that we should, each and every day, endeavour to live a life that is true to ourselves, our passions, and our beliefs, for our lives are but transient and fleeting, as with the gift of time.
In the long run, we are indeed all dead. But in the long run, we will all also become stories that can inspire and uplift, transcending the boundaries of time and space. It is precisely because of the fact that we will all be dead in the long run that we face the urgency and critical need to pursue our passions and dreams in the present time.
After all, it is our mortality – not immortality – that compels us to strive hard to leave behind not insipid, uninspiring lives, but rather, true manifestations of our ideas in their tangible forms whose permanence can far outlive our own.