Immortality, Memory and Imagination

Belshaw, Christopher (2015). Immortality, Memory and Imagination. The Journal of Ethics, 19(3-4) pp. 323–348.



Immortality—living forever and avoiding death—seems to many to be desirable. But is it? It has been argued (notably by Williams, recently by Scheffler) that an immortal life would fairly soon become boring, trivial, and meaningless, and is not at all the sort of thing that any of us should want. Yet boredom and triviality presuppose our having powerful memories and imaginations, and an inability either to shake off the past or to free ourselves of weighty visions of the future. Suppose, though, that our capacities here are limited, so that our temporal reach is fairly significantly constrained. Then, I argue, these alleged problems with immortality will recede. Moreover, similar limitations might help us in the actual world, where life is short. If we cannot see clearly to its end points, both ahead and behind, life will seem longer.

Many people believe they will live forever. Many more, while lacking this belief, nevertheless hope, or would like, to live forever. But there is a difference. Although the boundaries here are not sharp, belief in immortality is, typically, belief in some sort of endless life, often of a not altogether familiar kind, that comes to us after death. The hope, where there is not the belief, is often for an avoidance of death, and a continuation of the life we already enjoy. It is this second form of immortality—let us just say secular rather than religious—that I am concerned with here. Though many think that a life without end is desirable, and would like it to be offered them, there are well-known objections. How powerful are these? Several writers have claimed they are exaggerated, and that the problems with immortality are more fanciful than real. But rather than explore these alleged solutions to the immortality problem, many of them already well aired, I go on to offer a different solution which, or so I claim, is more buoyant.

Hoping to live forever is not very sensible. It is like hoping to fly, or to wake up one morning looking like your favourite film star. Immortality is, to put it mildly, a long way off. Even so, and sensible or not, we can profitably discuss it. The first sections here begin by treading what will for many be familiar ground. But then the solution I offer leads into territory less familiar. In later sections I consider the extent to which the strategies within this alleged solution can be redeployed in such a way as to offer assistance with our current and mortal lives. A final section, somewhat speculative, considers why it might be that we have need of such strategies.

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