Introduction

The Purpose of this essay will be to explore the ambiguous nature of the term immortality, and to determine whether or not, if it was achievable, it could still be considered possible to have a meaningful life as a result of removing the prospect of death. The kind of immortality I will be focusing on in this essay will be through a secular understanding [1]. In order to explore this sufficiently, first I must unpack what it means for a life to be meaningful, and then in doing so I will be able to hold the conditions of an immortal subject in contrast with a mortal, both in terms of the subjects themselves and the environment. I can then explore how this may effect life in order to determine the answer specifically to the question ‘would immortality give life meaning?’. 

What makes life meaningful?

What does it mean to say that a life has meaning? The dictionary suggests that for something to be meaningful, is for it to have a purpose [2] or a significance [3] to a person, or to a number of people [4]. Therefore, for a life to be considered meaningful, it must meet this criteria and be considered as such, either by the individual who lives the life, or by other individuals who observe the life externally. The meaning belongs to the one who who sees it as meaningful. Furthermore, it is possible, through such a definition, that someone may not experience their life as meaningful but others do; and vice versa.

What is considered significant is linked to what is valued. This is ultimately a subjective decision and is made by an individual, although there may be some degree of influence by outsiders and so could be either a personal or a collective decision. Once these values have been established, people can orientate themselves towards a goal (or number of goals) with a plan which encompasses these values. In doing this, so long as the goals are achievable, significant, and realistic, it will be sufficient to give life a purpose, and therefore, contribute to the possibility of making that life more meaningful.

An important point to consider here is that individuals do not live in isolation, and that they inevitably find themselves situated in social settings [5]. In a functioning society, individuals form social connections with the people around them, and establish an identity that is meaningful in the context of their environment. Because of these conditions, individuals can find themselves sharing values that are significant to many people; and it is by sharing values with others, that one can directly add to the significance of that which is valued. This has the potential to make life more meaningful for all those involved. After all, if significance is defined as that which is worthy of attention or what is of great importance, and what is significant to many people has more force and power behind it than that which is significant to only a few, then the more people that value something, the more it becomes worthy of attention and the more important it becomes as a result. For this reason, it can be argued that there is much more meaning to be found in something that is shared [6]. For example: religion is a value that is shared between great numbers of people and for many devout followers, it is the most important thing that unites them and is gives their lives a sense of meaning. It is for this reason that any goals an avid believer makes (which encompass these values), have the potential to give that life a sense of purpose to anyone who shares those values, and so, be perceived as meaningful. However, this is not limited to religions. The same effect can be had on supporters of a sports team, followers of an ideology, and other modes of communal being. 

In contrast with this, the present my father gave me is only of value to me, and can not be as important as that which holds significance to many. Consequently, the values of the collective have more potential for meaning, simply because they are more significant in the sense of their reach; and more worthy of attention by reason of having gripped a greater number of people. If the individual aligns their goals or life’s purpose towards that which is of greater significance, rather than focusing on petty and insignificant goals, there is more possibility of meaning being found in the former than there is in the latter.

However, I must make it clear, that declaring something meaningful does not in itself make it good. Things can hold a lot of meaning yet be responsible for unfathomable horrors, such as what happened with the Nazis or the Communists at the turn of the 20th century. They considered what they were doing extremely meaningful, and that meaning was magnified by the sheer number of people that propagated those ideologies. Unfortunately, as meaningful as this was for them, they were responsible for the persecution and the deaths of millions. Therefore, it can be concluded from this that something being meaningful does not suggest it is good. If someone values being good above all else, this may in fact cause them not to follow the values of the majority. In such cases, being an individual may offer more meaning than aligning ones goals with the abhorrent ideology of a collective. Furthermore, something that is evil may still be considered meaningful; although how it is meaningful depends on the subject. A good example of this is the figure of satan; who is considered to be an incredibly meaningful character. The monotheists hold satan as an example of a negative way of being, whereas satanists see him in a positive way. Both views are contrary to one another, and yet both retain an abundance of meaning in the way of life the character of satan represents. 

Although I have argued so far that collective goals offer more potential for meaning, it is still possible that one may find purpose in personal goals as well. For example, one must eat and drink for nourishment, sleep to prevent exhaustion, and be with others to prevent loneliness. Someone who chooses to value a simple life may, as a result, gives significance to these personal desires, making it important to fulfil them and instilling life with a simple (and some would say blissful) sense of meaning [7]. It can be argued that one must be healthy and strong both physically and mentally in order to be of any use to others and so this is fundamental. Furthermore, there is nothing to stop anyone from holding personal and collective goals simultaneously. Timothy Chappell describes ‘a good human life’ as ‘a rope of overlapping threads, significant projects, some of which at any time are not yet fulfilled or otherwise still continuing’ [8]. He goes on further to describe the good life, that is one which is filled with meaning and purpose, as ‘one in which a variety of projects and commitments are live at any given time, [..] while these projects may be each of limited temporal duration, they do not all finish at once—they overlap like the threads in a rope’ [9]. This is to say that it is reasonable to hold a number of goals; among which some can be personal, and others can extend to effect many lives. Additionally, personal goals can hold a certain degree of meaning or significance if it is taken into consideration that they contribute to making a person more capable of fulfilling greater goals which hold much more significance.

To summarise what I have said so far: a meaningful life is one lived by the individual who is able to organise themselves towards the completion of goals that fulfil objectives which are deemed important [10]. Goals can be personally or collectively held, and serve a purpose that is significant to one or many people. The more a person is able to fill their life with purpose and significance, the more potential there will be for a meaningful life; that is as long as these goals can be considered reasonable and achievable, with observable and desired effects. Although, as I have made clear, this does not confirm whether that which is meaningful should also be considered good. It is plausible for something evil to be considered meaningful, such as the figure of satan.

What I will now attempt to show is how this relates to immortality and whether it is possible for it to give life meaning. My next task will be to confront the problems that arise from considering the conditions of a secular immortality, with respect to the subject and its environment.

The conditions of the immortal subject and its environment.

I think in order to understand whether or not one can live a meaningful life as an immortal, the conditions must be considered along with their implications. Immortality can be defined as ‘exempt from death’, or ‘imperishable’ [11]. This definition alone however, does not adequately give a good idea of what it means to be immortal as it leaves open several ambiguities. It also completely neglects the conditions of the immortal subject and how they can vary.

The first assumption I am making is that the immortality in question is the result of a scientific endeavour; an experiment which has tackled the problem of death by natural causes in a purely materialistic sense. If this was achieved, it is not obvious that in tackling death it would necessarily stop the process of ageing. If immortality is granted but the ageing process continues, life can only continue to be meaningful for the subject until they become so old that neither their mind or body are of any use to them; although it is possible to disagree with this if you hold that life is inherently meaningful. An example of this problem is given in the ancient greek story of Tithonus. He began life as a mortal, and was granted immortality by Zeus, but not eternal youth. In time it became a curse rather than a blessing, and he was locked in a room with a useless body. The Homeric Hymns outline the story as followed: 

But when loathsome old age pressed full upon him, and he could not move nor lift his limbs, this seemed to her in her heart the best counsel: she laid him in a room and put to the shining doors. There he babbles endlessly, and no more has strength at all, such as once he had in his supple limbs.

[12]

This example raises a great point. It does not seem reasonable to suggest that Tithonus (or anyone for that matter) could be capable of any significant acts which would add value to life while being severely aged and senile [13]. Furthermore, it is not obvious that in attaining immortality in a materialist sense, that one would then remain forever youthful. Therefore, if scientific advancements were the cause of the immortality, in order for the immortal to maintain the possibility of a meaningful life, it is crucial that the ageing problem is also resolved. Nevertheless, for anyone observing this life from an external perspective, the life of someone like Tithonus can still be considered deeply profound and meaningful.

Assuming these issues are tackled, the problems, unfortunately, do not stop there. Other questions can be raised, such as: does immortality, and a body which does not age, imply that the body becomes indestructible? I would contend that it does not [14]. For example, what happens if the immortal subject falls into an active volcano, or is crushed by a large rock? It does not follow that bodily damage could be prevented just by stopping death and ageing. The material body being made of flesh and bones, implies the possibility of destruction under extreme conditions; yet if this is possible, it opens the question of whether the subject was immortal in the first place, or at least raises the conundrum on how the immortal may be said to continue to exist. Unless you introduce the concept of a disembodied spirit, in what sense could a subject be considered alive without a body? From here, I could also ask about the necessity of breathable air, edible food and drinkable water. Are these necessary for an immortal subject? Eternal life only seems to give rise to further problems and difficulties which complicate the concept.

Other questions that arise with regards to the conditions of immortality are not solely focused on the subject. I can also take into consideration the environment that the immortal subject lives within. This unavoidably effects what it means to be immortal and whether meaning is still achievable. If you create an undying subject who does not age, has an indestructible body and is self-sufficient, you still have not solved the problem of a finite universe. The earth will not be habitable forever. Nor will the universe necessarily exist eternally; for example, it may eventually experience a heat death and cease to exist [15]. So I must ask, what good would immortality be without an environment to be immortal in? How could life continue to be meaningful where there is nothing for life to engage with? The biological problems of the body may be somehow overcome, but that would not remove the inevitable end of the cosmos. This material end would be reason enough to introduce a possibility of nihilism. It could even undermine the possibility of immortality in any material sense altogether; as from this, it can be concluded that in order for there to be a possibility of immortality, it necessitates that there is an eternal universe for the subject to live within.

To briefly recap what I have argued so far: Firstly, immortality itself will not grant life meaning, as it is not a necessity for meaning to become manifest. It is acceptable to claim that meaning is just as accessible to those who will die as those will not. Furthermore, if a scientific endeavour caused the immortality, it would have to be accompanied by other attributes to be truly consider an unending life; this includes an eternal environment. However, it may be that material immortality is not possible, especially if the universe is destined to come to an end. If this is the case, there would be no way of overcoming the inevitable end and the so called ‘immortal’ would cease to be worthy of the title. We would be forced to see them as mortals (albeit with a very long life span), that deal with the same existential battles between meaning and nihilism as any other self-conscious being with a more limited lifetime. Unless, of course, it turns out the universe is eternal, in which case this criticism would be void. 

I will now move on a possible retort to what I have stated so far with a claim that focuses on death being a necessity for meaning to occur.

Possible obstacles for the immortal in attaining meaning. 

Although immortality would not necessarily make life meaningful, there are arguments to suggest that immortality itself can inevitably lead to nihilism. It may be possible that death is what gives rise to the potential for meaning and provides reason to value some things above others. It is therefore suggested that in deaths removal, meaning becomes unobtainable. This point is put forward by A.W. Moore, in which he makes a comparison between the views of F. Nietzsche and B.Williams, and concludes that ‘immortality would nullify the very resources needed to overcome the sense of life’s meaninglessness’ [16]. The resources he is referring to here would be that which is gained as a consequence of the knowledge of death. An awareness of finitude makes time itself a precious commodity, forcing one to be picky with how to spend their time. This inevitably leads to a value hierarchy, as careful decisions must be made on how to spend what little time one has in life. It is suggested that immortality would remove this completely, and time would cease to be valuable which in turn could undermine the possibility of value hierarchies altogether. Another reason he has for putting forward this argument is that ‘life must eventually become, [..], tedious to the point of unendurability [sic]’ [17], simply because life would eventually feel repetitive, and death has ceased to be an escape. However, that does depend on the conditions. If we take the materialistic position and deny the existence of a soul, and posit the end of the universe as inevitable as mentioned above, immortality ceases to be possible and is instead replaced with a very long mortality. In this case the criticism put forward by Moore has nothing to stand on, as it opens up the possibility to an end, and thus, revives the possibility of meaning. Alternatively, if it turns out God does exist and there is such thing as a eternal soul, the conditions of the immortality gained in the afterlife could be made in such a way that meaning is inherently given in the experience. This shows that regardless of which direction the problem is approached from, meaning is still given as a potential, unless it is true that awareness of death is the fundamental process through which meaning can manifest itself. Unfortunately, one could not know this without access to an immortal to ask the question. 

Conclusion

I do not think meaning is inherently given in the possession of immortality, but it is possible that meaning could rely on death for it to be a conceivable idea and so it could be the case that immortality removes meaning from life altogether. However if it turns out that death plays no part in this process, it then appears to rely on whether life can be experienced as meaningful by someone, be that the living subject or an external observer. The life itself must have purpose; which is to be fixated on the completion of significant goals which are held as valuable to one or many people. Under such conditions, both meaning and nihilism are always a potential outcome; and the possibility of this is open to both mortals and immortals equally. Finally, although a life may be considered meaningful, this is not to say that it is also good. It is within the realm of possibility for a meaningful life to have abhorrent goals, and for its intentions to be evil, just as it is possible for it to be good and well intentioned.

Bibliography

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