Do You Really Want to Live Forever?
If given the Immortality Pill, would you take it?
Posted May 20, 2019
Most people say that they do not want to die, treating death as one of the worst things that can happen to them and to those they love. Most are willing to do almost everything in order to prevent death. They fear death and hate it.
The Thought Experiment
However, do we really want to not die? Consider the following thought experiment. Suppose that some sorcerer, or a supernatural entity, offered you to live forever. You could receive a pill—call it the "Immortality Pill”—that would ascertain that you never die. Would you take it?
Conditions of the Thought Experiment
Let me specify the conditions for this thought experiment. Many people wouldn’t take the pill because they imagine themselves as being forever very old and frail, remaining endlessly in a state of senile dementia, pains, and difficulties to move.
However, it is a condition of this thought experiment that if you take the Immortality Pill you do not become older. You remain at least as flexible, strong, mentally sharp and alert, etc., as you’re now. And while things certainly won’t worsen, they might even improve: if you’ll do, say, yoga, you’ll become even stronger and more flexible than you’re now. If you’ll learn a language, you’ll know more than you do now. But even if you do nothing, the aging process stops; things won’t get worse.
Other possible problems are also taken care of in this thought experiment. The sorcerer or supernatural entity guarantees that you will not find yourself after several centuries or millennia living forever in a nuclear desert, or, because of possible climate changes, in other types of deserts. Nor will the political system deteriorate so that you’ll find yourself living forever under some kind of a terrible Fascist-or-Stalinist-like regime. Both physically and politically, your environment will be at least as agreeable as it is now. The sorcerer also guarantees that you will not be hit in, say, a car accident that would leave you in a dire physical condition forever. If you reject this proposal for immortal life, you shouldn’t do so because of these concerns.
Assume also that the decision is irreversible. If you choose to take the pill, you will, of course, be free (as you are now) to change your lifestyle in all sorts of ways, but you will not be able to commit suicide. As in the film Groundhog Day, jumping before a train or a bus will not kill you. Even if you wouldn't like it, you’ll stay alive forever.
The Surprising Common Reply
I am not a statistician, and thus am uncertain that the results ahead are representative of people at large. Still, up to now, I have presented this question, both in private conversations and in academic lectures, to about a thousand people, and around 70 percent of them said that they would not take the Immortality Pill, although many of them had difficulties explaining why. It might be interesting also for you, the reader, to examine for yourself whether you would take the Immortality Pill, and to try to understand why.
Here are some of the reasons those who refused to take the pill presented for their decision, and possible replies to these reasons:
Some people explain that they wouldn’t opt for the pill because the condition is irreversible. Once people take the pill, they can never die. There is no escape from this condition. However, this reason is problematic since the alternative condition, death is also irreversible, and there is no escape from it, either.
In his important paper, "The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality," Bernard Williams argues that immortality would be tedious. If one weren’t to change radically throughout the years, one is bound to become bored sooner or later since, in immortality, any deed or experience will repeat itself an infinite number of times.
However, in his reply to Williams, called "Why Immortality Is Not So Bad," John Martin Fischer doubts that people who live forever must indeed become bored. True, if one eats the same food every meal without taking any breaks, one is indeed bound to get bored with that food after a short while. But if one eats the same food only once every two weeks, one can enjoy the experience again and again.
This is true also of the other experiences that one will go through again and again in an immortal life. If there are sufficiently large breaks between the experiences, one can enjoy them many times over, and need not become bored. Further, it’s not at all clear that all experiences will indeed repeat themselves. One could meet new people, read new books, and see new things; the world will change, and with it one’s experiences. Moreover, some of the old experiences will be forgotten and be experienced as new.
Death of Dear Ones
Some say that they will not take the pill because, if they took it, they would have to see their dear ones—such as friends, spouses, siblings, children, grandchildren—die, and this is a terrible experience. If they will make new friends and have new families, they will eventually again have to see these new friends, families, etc., die. They rather not go through this painful experience.
However, when it is proposed to people who present this reason that they would be given not only one pill but, say, a hundred, so that they could hand some pills also to friends and family members, many who present this explanation do not change their minds. So it is unclear that this is really the issue that bothers them.
Further, when asked whether, if a terrible accident that killed their friends and family were to take place they would commit suicide, many reply negatively; they say that such a terrible event would, of course, be very difficult for them, but that they would continue living, and if they could, would probably make new friends and try to have a new family. But this seems to be in tension with the reason they present for refusing to take the pill.
Some say that they will not take the pill because they do not want to intervene in the course of life. But they often find it hard to explain why they do not want to intervene in the course of life. What is so bad in intervening in the course of life?
Further, what they say is in tension with what many of them in fact do: many of them do, for example, take medications that lower their cholesterol or blood pressure levels, refrain from smoking, exercise, or do other things that lengthen their lives. They do, in fact, “intervene” with what would have otherwise been their life span. And if they were told that they need to go through surgery—even a painful one—in order to lengthen their lifespan, many admit that they would. All this, too, seems to be in tension with this explanation for refusing to take the pill.
Some explain their decision by saying that if everyone lived forever there would soon be a population explosion on Earth. However, the thought experiment doesn’t suggest that everyone will receive the pill. Only you (or, in one version of the experiment, you and your close friends and family) will receive the pill.
So would you take the Immortality Pill? Why?
And if you wouldn’t take the pill, would you take a pill that will give you life for a much shorter period of time than eternity, such as, for example, two billion years? Or, perhaps, for two hundred thousand years? If not, would you take a pill that will keep you alive for just twenty thousand years or two thousand years? How about two hundred years? Would you take any pill that will lengthen your lifespan? Why?
Bernard Williams, "The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality," in Problems of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 82–100.
John Martin Fischer, "Why Immortality Is Not So Bad," International Journal of Philosophical Studies 2, no. 2 (1994), 257–270.