Immortality and boredom
If immortality means a zero chance of death, it is doubtful whether mankind (or any lifeform) will ever achieve this. Nevertheless, advocates for extending the maximum human life span often face arguments that address the negative features of being immortal. It is important to be aware that arguments against immortality do not necessarily apply to radical life extension. In absence of contemporary technologies to extend the maximum human life span, it is premature to make a case for immortality. But since some arguments that are raised against immortality are raised against living a lot longer as well, it can be beneficial to address them. One such argument is that immortality would lead to boredom.
This is the argument that Bernard Williams makes in his article “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality” (reprinted in the collection “The Metaphysics of Death”). Elina Makropulos is a 342 old character in Karel Čapek’s play “The Makropulos Case,” whose unending life has become boring and cold. Although Williams discusses a number of interesting issues about death, the article does not contain a logical argument to believe that an unending life will necessarily lead to boredom.
The argument that immortality leads to boredom can take two forms; empirical and logical. In the first case we would observe immortal people and conclude they will become (increasingly) bored. Clearly, this approach is not possible. A milder form of this approach would be to observe very old people and to extrapolate from this to immortality. But this does not seem to be very promising. Many old people are still very curious and involved with the world, even when struggling with aging-induced medical complications. Perhaps there is a tipping point after which old people will get bored. Perhaps not.
The other argument that immortality leads to boredom is logical in nature and is derived from the properties of being immortal as such. This does not seem to be very promising either. The assumption in such arguments is that an immortal person will exhaust all there is to live for. There are at least two problems with such a line of reasoning. The first problem is whether such a state of affairs (a fixed person with finite possibilities and experiences) logically follows from immortality. Why not assume there will be infinite possibilities and experiences (even if the person stays “the same”) instead? The other problem is that such a line of reasoning reflects an impoverished view of life, emphasizing just quantity and progress. In this view, life is a one-dimensional journey in which all things are tried and left behind. Such an outlook on human existence does not leave room for the possibility that some experiences get richer the more we experience them. It neither leaves room for the possibility that we attach intrinsic value to things, aside from their relationship with the past or the future.
Williams anticipates such arguments when he writes:
“if one is totally and perpetually absorbed in…an activity, and loses oneself in it…we come back to the problem of satisfying the conditions it should be me who lives forever, and that the eternal life should be in prospect of some interest.”
Such an argument is not persuasive because being perpetually absorbed in something is not equivalent to that person not existing. But it is not even evident why immortality would require a person to be perpetually absorbed in something or face boredom. As Max More points out, “There is no guarantee of being engaged with life, but ennui has to do with laziness rather than the availability of too much time.”
The argument that immortality will lead to boredom is not empirical, and to the extent that a logical argument is made, it is inconclusive. Perhaps arguments of this kind do not so much reflect logic but temperament, just like ontological arguments in favor of pessimism and optimism tell us more about the philosopher in question than about the nature of the universe.
Bernard Williams does believe that as long as the desire to live exists, he does not want to die. He does not know when life will reach a point after which he would be better off not living. That is all that we need right now because no one is offering scientific means to become immortal. And even if such means would become available, one is not obliged to use them or remain immortal. Perhaps one reason why immortality has such a bad reputation in fiction is that it is often portrayed as a state of being with no way out or as a curse.