“I am not eternity, but a human being – a part of the whole, as an hour is part of the day. I must come like the hour, and like the hour I must pass.” – Epictetus
In the last four posts, we uncovered the dual paradoxes of the desire for immortality despite its negatives and the fear of death despite its positives. We can abstract from this inextricable conflict its basic truth – the fundamental premise behind the words mortality and immortality is subjective considerations about time. It may be that our quest is actually a wish to alter time’s supremacy over us. The three most likely scenarios here are: (1) a preference for a longer but still finite lifespan, (2) the wish to slow or stop the passage of time, or (3) the hope for time transcendence or existence outside of time. We will take these individually.
In the first case, the desire for immortality is symbolic of the longing for a longer life span in which to accomplish all of one’s desires and experience all of the desired experiences. In that alternative world, one would remain healthy and die only when one has done all one wishes to do or when one is weary of life. Immortality is recast as optimal life expectancy. It turns out that for some of us the average life expectancy in 21st century developed countries may already meet this condition, but most of us would seek a longer life span, though not necessarily eternal life. For now our only options are taking good care of our bodies, avoiding injury, and managing disease preferably through prevention. Technical advances may lead to a sustainable corporeal existence in the future or perhaps continued consciousness in a nonorganic structure although this risks metaphysical identity.
The second case would simply allow the slowing or cessation of the movement of time. This appears impossible although near light-speed travel would make time move slower relative to others, it would not change one’s sense of one’s own life span. In any case slowing or stopping time is clearly not desirable on deeper reflection. While this alternative might have some practical advantages in normal life, in reality, if time were to stop or slow, growth and progress would be attenuated or halted – a state hauntingly similar to death itself. Stagnation and inactivity is an unacceptable price to pay for only apparent immortality.
Last is the desire to exist outside of time altogether. We are familiar with timeless existence – geometric and mathematical figures, concepts like justice and love, creative works such as music, poetry, and fiction. These “immortal” things are not subject to the negatives of immortality. However it is difficult to see how living matter can be recast as timeless in the same fashion, and timeless existence is inactive and only the tool of contingent entities inside time.
Perhaps there is a different transcendental understanding of immortality within time itself, but to find that we will need to analyze the metaphysics of time which is the subject of our next blog.