Close your eyes and try to imagine no longer being alive. It’s difficult, isn’t it? That’s because we as a species can’t possibly comprehend the philosophical concept of “nothingness”. Goethe was the first to notice this and realized that even the act of thinking about nothing is still something. We as humans know that we’re going to die someday, but we can’t possibly understand how it would be like to die and this causes immense feelings of fear and discomfort. This is called “the mortality paradox “, and it is what drives humanity to avoid death. What separates us humans from all the other animals is our ability to foresee our own deaths, and, believe it or not, It might just be responsible for all of civilization itself.
Everything you see around you was, in some sense, built because somebody somewhere wanted to avoid death. Either that or they hoped to live on through their accomplishments, a form of symbolic immortality. Ask yourself this question: Why does our civilization even bother doing literally anything? Firstly, it’s because Money, friendship, fame, status, family, relationships, and power are all things that help us guarantee safety and security. All of these desires stem from our evolutionary drive to survive. But there is a second reason. The idea that we only built civilization because it is a way to cope with death. It is a way to immortalize ourselves in our work, our children, or our relationships. This concept is called, “Terror Management Theory”, and some philosophers think that it may be the reason we try so desperately to accomplish something within our short lifespans.
TERROR MANAGEMENT THEORY
“Terror management. This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god in nature… Yet, at the same time… man is a worm and food for worms” – Ernest Becker
The term “Terror management theory” was coined by the anthropologist Ernest Becker to describe our awareness of death and the resulting agitation to accomplish something. Terror management is the way we respond to the desire for immortality through either a creative or destructive capacity to cope with our inevitable mortality. The realization that you are nothing but a mere bipedal defecating apes hurtling through space on a little blue turd, circling the galactic drain. This thought is not particularly uplifting, so we are driven to try and create something that will last after we are dead.
Everything that we as a species have ever accomplished has been motivated by one factor, the irreducible fear of non-existence. This is why we dominate the earth. All of our motivation comes from placing value on the achievements we make based on their projection beyond the grave. Much of the celebrated works of western civilization is devoted to avoiding death itself, with scientific advancements all geared towards ensuring the survival of humanity. Essentially everything we have done and will ever do is motivated by the will to produce something that will outlast us.
This conflict produces terror, and this terror is then managed by embracing cultural values, or symbolic systems that act to provide life with meaning and value. Terror Management Theory argues that cultural values seemingly unrelated to death can offer us symbolic immortality. For example, value of national identity, racial identity, posterity, lineage, or cultural perspectives on sex. It gives us the sense that we are part of something greater than ourselves that will ultimately outlive the individual. It argues that most human action is taken to ignore or avoid the inevitability of death.
Ernest Beckner says that we cope with this death anxiety through 3 major solutions. The first was the religious solution, where we create a narrative of heaven and an afterlife where we will be immortal. The problem with this solution was that, as our world became more secular. we started to doubt the possibility of an afterlife. As a result, we found a second solution to the problem, the romantic solution. This is where you diefy your lovers or where you become immortalized through your relationships with others. In modern pop culture, you see this in pop songs praising women as goddesses or television sitcoms showing you that family comes first. However, this solution only provides relief for a while, as even relationships can eventually collapse. Even then, do you even remember the names of your great grandparents? If not, it’s probably because the average time it takes the average person to be forgotten by following generations is about 75 years. This brings us to the third solution to the problem of death, the “creative solution”. This is where we create a work of transcendent value that will symbolically grant us immortality, leaving a part of us in this world forever. This can be in the form of a book, a statue, or a scientific discovery. We strive to do things so that we will be remembered and immortalized through history.
Unfortunately, we as a species are starting to realize that even the third solution to the problem of death is futile. It takes 75 years for us to forget the average person, but even famous people can be forgotten. How many ancient Egyptian celebrities do all of us non-historians actually remember? Do you think humans will still care about Justin Bieber and Katy Perry one hundred thousand years into the future? We’ve remembered the name of the Greek hero Achilles for thousands of years, but give it enough time and even he will be forgotten.
That is why I would like to propose a fourth solution, the drive to immortalize our minds. It is not a new idea. We have seen it appear in history from Gilgamesh, to the philosopher’s stone, to the cryonics movement in the present day. Not only has this Death Anxiety been the driving force of progress, but it is also why we hold the concept of immortality in such divine regard. It is the fourth way to cope with death, the full on dedication to the desire for immortality. However, Ayn Rand argued that if immortality were ever accomplished it would cancel out the previous three solutions. Meaning an immortal being would no longer be religious, they would no longer fall in love, and they would no longer bother producing any great accomplishments.
On page 15 of The Virtue of Selfishness and Objectivist Ethics, Rand argues against the concept of indefinite life, suggesting that we would evolve into beings with no interests or goals. She calls this argument “the Immortal Robot”. It states as such:
“Try to imagine an immortal robot, an entity which cannot be damaged, injured or destroyed. Such an entity would not be able to have any values; it would have nothing to gain or to lose; It could have no interests and no goals “ – Ayn Rand (The Virtue of Selfishness Page 15)
This argument would seem to suggest that eliminating death anxiety would make us not want to create things or pursue relationships. But is this a terrible argument? If we had an indefinite amount of time to live, would we become lazy and have no genuine values? Would this so called “immortal robot” really put things off just because it is eternal? Or would it actually keep producing things and having relationships, because it has already evolved to enjoy them?
The first problem with this argument is that the robot might not even be possible and if it was, it would still have to struggle to constantly maintain that immortal existence. Even with indefinite biological longevity, human beings will always be vulnerable to some kind of external existential risk. The longer we live, the more likely we might encounter a gamma ray burst or see an asteroid hit the Earth. Even if the robot uploaded it’s mind and built millions of computer back ups of itself all throughout the universe, it would still be vulnerable to the inevitable heat death of the universe. This means that if these so called immortal robots wanted to survive, they would have to either create baby universes or build Einstein-Rosen bridges to other universes. These are hypothetical, but since we would have a limited amount of time to build them, we would be anything but lazy. Thus Ayn Rand is wrong.
The second problem is that some animals are already immortal or have already attained negligible senescence. Lobsters, Giant Tortoises, Alligators, and the Turotopsis Nutricula jellyfish already have no upper limit to their life spans, yet they still mate and form relationships. Suppose that evolution had taken a different course and humans were instead descended from immortal non-senescent Quahog ocean clams rather than apes. Would our indefinite life spans really make us unable to bond with each other the way we do now? Will these alternate humans have the so called lack of value described by Rand?
But let’s just say the previous 2 counter arguments are invalid and that humans find a way to eliminate all existential risks, becoming not just immortal but also indestructible. Let’s say we manage to halt the expansion of the universe and also create a planet without car accidents or asteroids. If this were the case, would life become meaningless? I think Ayn Rand would still be wrong even if this were the case. Because even if death was a physical impossibility, it would have no effect on our ability to pursue and enjoy art, music, science, literature, inventions, games, and exploration. This means any activity appealing to the senses and intellect rather than survival instincts could still be worth pursuing. Even our desire to improve civilization is a leftover evolutionary impulse that we are now stuck with, regardless of whether or not we all become biologically immortal.
This would mean that perhaps terror management theory might be wrong too. Historically, humans have been motivated by far more than the fear of death. Although the fear of death may have been the origin for all motivation, our civilizations have constructed new ways to cultivate ourselves that you will not see in other animals. Architecture, the Humanities, Philosophy, and Art. We take pleasure from building new things and partaking in activities, even if they don’t immortalize us or help us survive. The supply of the new things we can create or enjoy is virtually limitless. Whether this pleasure originated from the evolutionary drive to live is irrelevant. We live to discover the laws of nature, to envision new worlds, and to create new technology.
People don’t just enjoy the act of creating something, they enjoy the satisfaction that comes with having created something. Rand’s argument presupposes that no person actually enjoys the act of creation more than they enjoy the act of being idle. I’ve never met a musician who didn’t enjoy the process of making music just as much as they enjoyed the end product. If you don’t enjoy making music and only do it because you want to be remembered or because you want to get paid, then you probably shouldn’t be a musician. We have evolved to a point where work is its own reward, we as a species don’t like doing nothing. It would explain why people in the present day get sick of sitting around on the beach for a month. Sure, they will enjoy it at first, but then it becomes monotanous and they want to get back to work. Rand and Becker both presume that work is perceived to have a disutility much greater than the disutility of idleness.
SHOULD WE PURSUE INDEFINITE LIFE?
In conclusion, the fear of death is not the sole motivator for human action nor the prerequisite for value in our lives. Neither Rand’s immortal robot nor terror management theory are valid objections to the pursuit of Immortalism and indefinite life extension. Although an immortal being would probably find enjoyment in different activities than we do, it must nonetheless have a reason to live if it hasn’t yet killed itself. We pursue our curiosity, our personal development, and our self-actualization.
We built the Colosseum, Mount Rushmore, and the International space station. None of these accomplishments relied on the threat of death. Most of the things western civilization has built were accomplished by positive reinforcement, not the fear of negative punishment. We must never forget the reasons humans try to survive in the first place. We survive so that we may enjoy existence.