Immortality Notes for December 6

Main points

Williams argues from premises about our desires to two conclusions: death is bad and immortality would (probably) be bad too.

The premise is that there is a distinction between two kinds of desires. The distinction turns on what it would be for desires to be satisfied.

  1. Some desires could be satisfied either by achieving the desired aim or by extinguishing the desire itself. For instance, my desire to scratch my nose can be satisfied in one of two ways: by scratching my nose or by having the itchy feeling go away.
  2. Categorical desires are not like this. They can only be satisfied by achieving the desired aim. Of course, these desires can be extinguished, but that would not be a way of satisfying them.

Lucretius would be right if all of our desires fell into the first category: if the extinction of desire was as good as getting what we want, we might as well be dead. But most people have categorical desires: death is not a way of satisfying them so they give us a reason to live.

The problem with immortality, according to Williams, is that it would lead to the extinction of categorical desires and thus the reason we have for continuing to live.

What’s wrong with immortality?

There’s a dilemma, according to Williams. If the immortal person’s character doesn’t change in the light of her experiences, she will become bored with life, having done all that she can do with the character she has. But if the immortal person’s character can change, the distant future version of a person will have little interest in the categorical desires of the present person, such that the present person has little reason to value the distant person’s life.

We were split on this. Dhruv, Selma and others thought that Williams had a good point. Rob and others thought he was too pessimistic. The world is a dynamic, rich place that is full of interesting things. I believe their optimism was more closely tied to the possibility of a changing character. It may be true that my distant successor will be unintelligible to me. But, as Nick pointed out, I am now unintelligible to my six year old self: why would that be worse?


Williams ends with a discussion of Unamuno’s views. I put the relevant part on a handout.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2010. It was posted December 6, 2010.
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