- On Immortality and Significance: A Response to Aaron Smuts
In “Immortality and Significance,” Aaron Smuts argues that immortality would “sap our decisions of significance, which, combined with a few related factors, would result in a general motivational collapse.”1 To make this case, Smuts discusses the relationship of finitude and meaning and then says that an immortal life may be characterized by one of three features: success with fixed abilities, failure with fixed abilities, or success with nonfixed abilities. In the first scenario, the immortal enjoys success at some tasks but has an upper limit on his abilities; in the third, the immortal’s limitless abilities allow him to accomplish anything logically possible, absent conflicts with other omnipotent beings.
Because I agree with Smuts that an immortal life characterized by endless failures or omnipotence would be meaningless, I will focus instead on the scenario of success with fixed abilities and on Smuts’s characterization of an immortal life in terms of successes and failures.
Smuts begins by noting that our mortality adds “impetus and weight” to our decisions. Our finitude means that our decision to pursue a certain lover, hobby, or career will constrain the range of opportunities we will later face. Because of this, we must take great care in choosing our pursuits. Smuts cites Martha Nussbaum, who suggests, moreover, that the removal of this awareness makes our pursuits “more easy, more [End Page 490] optional, with less of striving and effort in them.”2 Failure would not alarm an immortal since he would have an eternity to spend on any given task. The immortal’s ability to return at any time to abandoned enterprises lessens the personal significance of his choosing one pursuit over another.
According to Smuts, the success of an immortal with fixed abilities would be either quick or prolonged, but in either case unsatisfactory. A string of quick successes would become boring because they would fail to challenge. But prolonged successes would also bore because they would simply reflect the “hollow victory of diligence” (IS, p. 134); that is, an immortal would eventually have accomplished the task anyway because he has an infinite amount of time to direct his energies toward it. Because of this, the value of prolonged successes would diminish and dwindle over time.
One might object that an immortal could derive meaning from life through the significance of first discovery or invention. The struggle to beat others to groundbreaking ideas may provide the immortal inexhaustible motivation and perdurable purpose.
In response to this objection, Smuts notes that it is possible that, given an infinite amount of time, all qualitatively identical situations will reoccur. If this is the case, the immortal risks nothing in delaying the discovery or invention of something. Failing to discover calculus first, for example, would not be devastating because an immortal may simply reintroduce the idea after calculus is forgotten. The fact that an immortal can delay any task without risk means his pursuit of calculus has little of the weight that mortality would lend it.
Even if eternal return is false, says Smuts, and even given an infinite number of truths, the promise of first discovery would not suffice to motivate an immortal. This is because only a finite number of subjects exist in which setting a precedent would be significant to a human being, and only a finite number of applications of acquired knowledge would be of interest. Over an infinite amount of time, there will be little left worth discovering, and the dearth of undiscovered, interesting truths would doom the immortal to boredom.
The assumption underlying Smuts’s characterizations of the immortal life appears to be that the desires that drive such a life must culminate either in failure or a self-exhausting success. Monumental, indelible failure would rob life of all meaning, and the permanent fulfillment of one’s categorical desires by a finite number of actions or events would not do much better. Permanent fulfillment of desires is achieved by [End Page 491] experiencing what John Martin Fischer calls self-exhausting pleasures. Consider Fischer’s example of wanting to climb a mountain to conquer a fear of heights...