If you found the Fountain of Youth and had a chance to live forever, would you drink the water?
UWM Associate Professor of Philosophy Luca Ferrero would, if the circumstances were just right. For the past year, he’s been working on a grant from the Templeton Foundation as part of The Immortality Project at the University of California-Riverside, an endeavor which asks philosophers to explore issues related to the concept of immortal life. Ferrero’s part of the project is to investigate the structure of such a life in hopes of answering one important question: is living forever actually desirable?
He presented his thoughts at the project’s Capstone Conference this summer and he’ll be writing a paper for publication detailing his thoughts.
“There’s a fantasy about having an immortal life and the things it will do for us, but when we reflect on the things that are really most important to us, it turns out that they are always related necessarily to the fact that we take our lives to be finite,” Ferrero said.
Given that, Ferrero thinks that there are two ways of looking at immortal life. The first is as a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. An immortal life has no end and that’s a difficult concept for humans to conceive. But Ferrero suggests to think of an ending not as a stopping point, but as what he calls a ’dynamic resolution,’ a satisfying conclusion to an action before the next action begins. We can imagine immortal life if it’s like a continuous story and we digest it in small chunks that are linked together. Think of it in musical terms.
“In harmony, you can move away to a dissonance, but at some point, the dissonance gets resolved,” Ferrero said, “and yet, the music keeps going.”
The second way of looking at immortal life is in terms of opportunity and scarcity. Ferrero examined the claim that the things we value in life we find important because we expect that our lives will end. What if, he wonders, we value these things for other reasons?
“It’s not because they are finite in time; it’s more because there are limited opportunities for action over time,” he said. “Imagine for a moment that you have a life that never ends, but is such that you face certain choices and then you can never go back. It could be careers; it could be people, places. My conjecture is that even if our life goes on forever, it’s still very recognizable given that we continue to face these kinds of choices and we might suffer permanent losses.”
There is a dark flipside to this argument. What if an immortal life has no loss? What if there is unlimited time to accomplish everything possible, so everything in the universe that is possible does ultimately occur?
“Sometimes, when people discuss immortality, they combine together the idea that the life never ends with the idea that there is no scarcity and thus all options, sooner or later, will become available,” Ferrero said. “Philosophers are worried, and I am too, that if this is what immortal life were to be like, then it would be shapeless. It would be unclear what would motivate us. Why should I get up in the morning if my life is immortal and whatever I’m supposed to do this morning, I could also do at a later time?”
Therefore, Ferrero says, if he encountered the Fountain of Youth, he’d have strict parameters for what would make immortal life worth living. It would have to be in a universe where people would be able to make choices with permanent consequences, and they would have to face losses and regrets – possibilities and opportunities that slip by.
To be clear, Ferrero and other philosophers are not debating whether life is actually immortal.
“I would say that many of the philosophers who are working on these issues these days, they probably accept that we are not immortal,” he said. “But they’re still interested in … the meaning and desirability of immortality.”
All of this may seem like a thought exercise, but questions about immortality and what might shape that life are hugely important as science advances. Researchers are examining ways to reverse aging and extend human life. Some scientists are interested in “resurrection medicine,” where people legally dead are returned to life through medical intervention. Even questions about the cost of palliative care relate back to this field of philosophy, says Ferrero.
“For instance, should we invest and spend hundreds and thousands of dollars to extend the life of a person just for a few days?” Ferrero said. “These are actually questions that we already face, and I think it would be a lot better to reflect on them using philosophy. Because these questions involve death, a lot of people don’t want to face them. … One of the bigger drives of civilization is how we conceive of death and how we address the prospect of death. It’s the very foundation of all the things that are important. So it is imperative that philosophy continues to reflect on it.”
So if you do find the Fountain of Youth, think long and hard before you take a sip.