Sunday, 26 March 2017

Would an Immortal Life be a Meaningless Life?

The Chaplain in The Meaning of Life

Bernard Williams (1929-2003) famously discusses this question in his essay The Makropulos case: reflections on the tedium of immortality. I shall defend one particular premise in Williams’s argument that an immortal life would be meaningless against Donald Bruckner’s objections, to highlight some reasons for thinking Williams is correct.


While non-human life might have some meaning, I shall only discuss the issues as they relate to individual human lives. I shall assume that the life is to be embodied, since some considerations, such as personal identity, are slightly different if the life is to be unembodied. Maybe mortal life has no meaning either, but, if it does, I take that to mean that there is, in fact, a reason to get up in the morning, to earn a wage, to maintain oneself and to carry on living. The sort of meaning we need is some ‘point, purpose, significance or value’ (Belshaw, 2014, p.136).

There are subjective and objective accounts of meaning. Life’s meaning seems heavily tied to a personal valuer, but such values may disappear once the valuer dies. A more objective account is sought which stands outside of individual lives. Timeless value might more easily offer meaning to immortal lives, being independent of life, continuing or not.

Williams’s argument

Bernard Williams suggests that ‘[i]mmortality, or a state without death, would be meaningless’ and ‘intolerable’ (Williams, 1973, p.82). The intolerability follows from the lack of meaning a person would inevitably (Williams thinks) experience in an eternal life; boredom would result. He presents a dilemma:

1) Eternal life is either one person’s life, and therefore inevitably boring, or
2) Eternal life becomes a series of unconnected person’s lives, so one would not be immortal.

I’m not sure that even the second option escapes inevitable boredom, and bodily continuity may provide a reason to care about future identities; but, granting Williams’s claim, I shall concentrate on the first horn.

Williams makes a distinction between categorical and contingent desires. The categorical/contingent distinction is conditional on life; desires that are not contingent on being alive are categorical. Contingent desires might include eating or reading a good book. Categorical desires are those that would drive one through life even if no contingent desires were being met. Williams illustrates this through the example of a man contemplating suicide:
If he does decide to undergo [what lay before him], then some desire propels him on into the future, and that desire at least is not one that operates conditionally on his being alive, since it itself resolves the question of whether he is going to be alive. He has an unconditional, or (as I shall say) a categorical desire. (p.85-86)
I’m not sure this distinction is altogether valid. For example, someone might judge that some contingent desires will be satisfied tomorrow; one might not be hungry today, since one's appetite has been satisfied for the moment, but one knows that, come tomorrow, hunger will return, so a fresh opportunity to satisfy one's renewed appetite can be anticipated. Is that not then a categorical desire? Williams suggests this may be when he says that a basic categorical desire might be one ‘that future desires of mine will be born and satisfied’ (p.87). If the categorical desire is to acquire or satisfy future contingent desires then those contingent desires surely become categorical (being the object of a categorical desire)?

Nadja Michael as Emilia Marty, aka Elina Makropulos, in Věc Makropulos.
Photo by Cory Weaver.
Nevertheless, the idea that some desires are independent of one’s own temporal existence is plausible; examples include the desires to nurture family, foster community and build legacies. Williams needs this distinction to combat the idea that more life is always better than less life, which follows if desires can only occur when one is alive. Because categorical desires do not depend on life, looking forward one can bridge periods of ennui with categorical desires and so retain the will to live. But immortality causes stasis; Williams suggests this through the repeated use of ‘froze’ and ‘frozen’ (p.91) when referring to the life of Elina Makropulos (EM), a fictional character who takes an elixir of life. The second horn of Williams’s dilemma would not engage, because life’s processes would stop. Looking forward, all categorical desires would be exhausted so nothing could bridge the periods of ennui.

Williams says:
The point is rather that boredom, as sometimes in more ordinary circumstances, would be not just a tiresome effect, but a reaction almost perceptual in character to the poverty of one's relation to the environment. (p.95)
This ‘almost perceptual’ response is a reaction to eternity: what happens to the categorical desires, such as nurturing family, when there is no end in sight? His suggestion is that they will inevitably evaporate, and unless there is a guarantee against this, we should reject immortality. Formally the argument can be stated:
Premise 1: In order for one’s life to be meaningful (and ‘recognisably human’ – Angelic lives are irrelevant), one must have a set of categorical desires that one wishes to satisfy.
Premise 2: Contingent desires alone cannot make life meaningful.
Premise 3: If one lived forever in a recognisably human form, one would exhaust one’s set of categorical desires and become bored and apathetic as a result.
Conclusion: Living forever in a recognisably human form would not be meaningful.
(Sinnicks, 2015)
Bruckner’s objections

Bruckner challenges P3 and suggests that categorical desires will not run out. He offers three objections:
1) That ‘the natural degradation of our memories would help to keep endlessly repeated experiences interesting’ (Bruckner, 2012, p.626)
2) That people naturally regain a taste for an activity once some time has elapsed.
3) That human ingenuity will generate new categorical desires.
Memory decay

Bruckner makes the reasonable point that our memories are not perfect and we would forget the experiences that had once satisfied categorical desires, so they would become unsatisfied once more. He gives the example of 20 careers of 40 years each, which would give a gap of 760 years between careers:
So pursuing that career again would provide a new-feeling, worthwhile, and enjoyable experience. One would be coming at it fresh. (p.630)
This doesn’t capture the full potential horror of the eternal situation. Certainly one might forget one’s previous career, but this would not mean that one would not discover that one had already ‘been there, done that’. Imagine you are an accountant who discovers 760 year-old notes in your own handwriting on some arcane interpretation of the tax laws of the time. One might think, how interesting to now be making similar interpretations of new tax laws; or, perhaps more reasonably, one might wonder how to get off this infernal merry-go-round.

Further, forgetting one’s own children, as EM does, illustrates how immortality would strip life of meaning. Perhaps EM could experience afresh the pain and joy of childbirth, but if she is at the same time forgetting the ends of that pain and joy, she is replacing an independent-of-self meaningful value (family) with a dependent-on-self less meaningful one (pain and joy). In Williams’s terms, she is losing a categorical desire while retaining a less meaningful contingent one.

Rejuvenation of Desire

Bruckner writes that ‘careers, ways of life, and other long-term pursuits are correctly classed as repeatable pleasures that would keep our immortal lives interesting.’ (p.632). He observes that short term desires, such as sex and eating revive after being satiated, and so too can longer term desires, such as gardening and teaching.

This is another reasonable observation about normal life but I’m not sure it entirely engages with Williams’s distinction between categorical and contingent desires. No doubt contingent desires can be satisfied and then rejuvenated after a while, but can the same be said for categorical desires eternally? Williams’s challenge is that if it cannot be shown that this is the case, immortality should be rejected (‘Nothing less will do for eternity than something that makes boredom unthinkable’ – Williams, p.95). If there is the chance that categorical desires can be exhausted at any time, then one should not want an eternal life. And since eternity is forever, it is inevitable that at some point there will be no categorical desires, even if they could be rejuvenated at a later time.

How plausible is this claim? Bruckner suggests it is holding immortal lives to a standard that we do not demand for mortal lives ‘which we think are perfectly worth living even given the risk of reaching a state of chronic boredom.’ (Bruckner, p.637). But Williams is pointing out that it is inevitable that one will exhaust categorical desires, not that there is a risk of it, in an immortal life, because we know some people do appear to exhaust their categorical desires in less than 100 year-old lives (and commit suicide). Therefore, there is a quantifiable risk per year, so in an eternity of years, there will be an incidence of categorical desire exhaustion.

So Williams demands that boredom be unthinkable. One episode of categorical desire exhaustion must be avoided even if some desires might subsequently be revived. I suggest this is because meaning involves looking forward with hope, and should categorical desires (the reasons that drive us on) be exhausted at any time, we will fall into despair, with nothing to bridge the period of ennui until a categorical desire rejuvenates. What is the attraction of an immortal life if we know at the outset that we will, definitely, fall into despair at some point?

Human Ingenuity

While the first two objections address the question of the exhaustion of similar experiences, the third suggests that ‘human ingenuity changes them and creates new ones’ (p.632-633).  Looking at my life today compared to my life as a teenager illustrates the point. I engage in many activities reliant on technological innovations, such as social media and 4GL computer programming, which were almost inconceivable when I was a teenager. Innovation generates new experiences that might provide a basis for new categorical desires. As Bruckner writes:
Riding a bicycle is good as a means of transportation and of exercise, but is also enjoyable in its own right. (p.634)
True enough, but there are at least two objections here:
1) We are not making the right evaluation of our categorical desires, and
2) We are assuming infinite human ingenuity.
First, if we take computer programming, for instance, our categorical desire may be to write a ground-breaking piece of software that mediates all international disputes to the satisfaction of all parties. Or, it may be to achieve world peace. The first looks like a new desire, but is in fact a way of achieving the second, pre-existing, desire. The suspicion is that however much technology advances it just provides new ways to pursue a finite list of human categorical desires. Unless the nature of humanity changes, these desires will not, and part of being recognisably human is to have a certain limited set of categorical desires.

But even if we allow that we can create new human categorical desires, there is a second objection: while human ingenuity seems capable of expanding our desires for a very long time, it’s not obvious that human ingenuity can increase them ad infinitum. We have finite tools at our disposal; a brain limited to the power of its thinking ability, a body limited to its physical constraints, so it may be safer to conclude that our ingenuity is finite too.


Williams provides an account of meaning which exists outside individual lives but is not everlasting. Bruckner counters by offering reasons to believe that desires giving meaning will recur indefinitely. But Williams’s ‘almost perceptual’ response takes human nature into account, suggesting such recurrences will become tiresome and meaningless. Bruckner’s objections are unconvincing because they address the lengthening of life but don’t full engage its eternity. There may be other, more convincing, objections, and the other premises may be problematic, but from this limited analysis I think there is some truth in the statement ‘an immortal life would be a meaningless life’.

Belshaw, C. (2014) The Value of Life (A333 Book 4), Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Bruckner (2012), ‘Against the Tedium of Immortality’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies vol.20, no.5.
Sinnicks, M. (2015) A333, 4. The Value of Life [Powerpoint presentation to A333 tutor group, Tonbridge]
Williams, B. (1973) ‘The Makropulos case: reflections on the tedium of immortality’, in Williams, B. (ed.) Problems of the Self, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 82–100.


For further reading on Bernard Williams's argument, and the challenges and refinements to it, I recommend the following pieces by John Danaher:


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