We'd like to understand how you use our websites in order to improve them. Register your interest. Having presented my four main reasons for this assessment, I examine an alternative and neglected conception, the idea of eternal life as a present possession, derived in large part from Johannine Christianity. Without claiming to argue for the truth of this conception, I present its investigation as exemplifying a conceptually fruitful direction of inquiry into immortality or eternal life, one which takes seriously the religious and ethical surroundings of these concepts. Footnote 1 As many readers of the present article will know, Williams draws upon the fictional case of Elina Makropulos to illustrate his contention that a life such as hers—and, by extension, any extraordinarily longevous life—would not, indeed could not, avoid becoming anything other than insufferably tedious.
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We'd like to understand how you use our websites in order to improve them. Register your interest. Having presented my four main reasons for this assessment, I examine an alternative and neglected conception, the idea of eternal life as a present possession, derived in large part from Johannine Christianity. Without claiming to argue for the truth of this conception, I present its investigation as exemplifying a conceptually fruitful direction of inquiry into immortality or eternal life, one which takes seriously the religious and ethical surroundings of these concepts.
Footnote 1 As many readers of the present article will know, Williams draws upon the fictional case of Elina Makropulos to illustrate his contention that a life such as hers—and, by extension, any extraordinarily longevous life—would not, indeed could not, avoid becoming anything other than insufferably tedious. Footnote 2. His opponents, by contrast, enthusiastically adduce various human characteristics that, in their imaginings, would facilitate unending contentment. Bruckner Thus, on the one side are those who insist that the human lifespan is about right as it is; perhaps a few more decades would be advantageous for most of us, but much beyond that would, necessarily, become intolerably dull.
Give us more! Not only could we endure it: we would thrive! It is, to put it mildly, difficult to see how a disagreement such as this could be resolved, not least because the arguments on both sides rest on little more than fantasizing.
As I have argued elsewhere, the whole debate lacks a coherent footing. Burley Not only do the majority of contributors make no effort to ground the concepts of immortality or eternal life in the religious contexts from which they gain the preponderance of the sense that they have, but in some instances these contexts are casually, and deliberately, set aside.
My purpose in this article is twofold. First I want to reiterate and reemphasize my reasons for regarding the Makropulos debate as being on a road to nowhere, and to defend those reasons against some objections that have been raised. Second, I want to explore some aspects of what I consider to be a philosophically thought-provoking, though admittedly somewhat elusive, conception of eternal life, which has been largely neglected both in the literature surrounding the Makropulos debate and in the philosophy of religion.
The conception in question is, in brief, that of eternal life as a present possession, as a characteristic of the life that each of us is living here and now, and which, according to a number of theologians especially in Christian traditions, can be accentuated or heightened through the cultivation of faith. On account of its rootedness in Christian theological discourse, this conception of eternal life cannot be transposed into a predominantly or exclusively secular philosophical debate.
I shall not, therefore, argue that the conception offers any straightforward contribution to the Makropulos debate; rather, my purpose in discussing it here is to provide one example of how theological resources can be utilized in order to facilitate more conceptually nuanced and ethically insightful reflections on immortality or eternal life than the Makropulos debate has tended to yield.
This section recapitulates, and develops in certain respects, material from Burley Participants in the Makropulos debate have, on the whole, framed it as a debate over whether immortality is desirable for beings like us. Footnote 3 An initial problem with this can be expressed in the form of the following dilemma. Evaluating the desirability of an imaginary life requires imagining what that life would be like. In the case of imagining a purportedly immortal life, either we must imagine what it would be like for us in a world much like the one we know or we must imagine what it would be like in an entirely different world.
Choosing the first option results in failing to imagine immortality at all, since any world much like our own could not be one in which we are immortal; the whole of nature would have to be dramatically transformed. There is a sense in which each of the subsequent problems below elaborates this one with a different inflection or emphasis, so I shall move on to those others.
A second problem with evaluating the desirability of immortality—and thus a second problem with the Makropulos debate as a whole—is that any clear judgment about the desirability of a life requires, minimally, the possibility of conceiving of that life in its entirety, rather than only some portions of it.
But, with the possible exception of some mathematical contexts, it makes no sense to speak of completed infinite series. While sense can be made of a potentially infinite series—and hence of a process that could, in principle, continue without end—there is nothing that could count as an infinite series that has reached completion. Therefore, a fortiori , there is nothing that could count as conceiving of an endless life as a whole. Let us call this the inconceivability of completed infinities.
One immediate objection to this latter contention of mine might involve invoking the idea of beginningless series. For example, in conceptions of reincarnation or rebirth deriving from India—such as those in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions—the series of lives undergone by any given individual is commonly said to be without beginning.
Footnote 4 We might then infer that what is being conceptualized is a series that, being already infinite in extent and having the present moment as a stipulated endpoint , does indeed constitute a completed infinity.
I am willing to concede that one could describe the beginningless series of rebirths as a completed infinity if one so wishes. But the important point is that, nonetheless, nothing could count as conceiving of that series in its entirety , since by definition it has no beginning—and perhaps no ultimate end either.
Footnote 5 Thus, although it is believed by Buddhists that the Buddha himself, on the night of his spiritual awakening, acquired knowledge of his previous lives, this could—if those lives are beginningless—mean only that he gained the ability to trace the series of lives back in time and that there would never come a point at which he was unable to trace it back further.
Bodhi : Such cautionary remarks should perhaps deter us from supposing that the point of describing the Buddha as one who knows all his former lives and those of other beings as well resides in his then being able to communicate this information to others. He is portrayed as knowing everything there is to know about living wisely, including those things that exceed our powers of comprehension.
There is, therefore, no simple validation for the idea of conceiving of a completed infinite series to be derived from Buddhist teachings, or from other traditions originating in South Asia. While endorsing the suggestion that if fruitful rather than vapid discussion is to be had about immortality and eternal life it is precisely to religious conceptions that we ought to turn, including those involving rebirth, I should add that these discussions are prone to slide again into vapidity if dislocated from the religious and cultural environments from which they acquire their sense.
Footnote 6. A further response to my contention about the inconceivability of completed infinite series has been made by John Martin Fischer, who, while accepting that such series are indeed inconceivable, proposes that it is not necessary to conceive of an immortal life as a whole in order to properly evaluate its desirability; this is not necessary, Fischer maintains, because for the immortal life to be evaluated it is sufficient to evaluate any of its finite portions.
More specifically, we can consider an immortal life at any particular moment in its trajectory and assess whether the life up to that moment is desirable, and we can go on doing this for any finite length of the life in question.
The puzzling thing about this response is that Fischer should regard it as doing anything other than conceding precisely the point I am making. My point is that the most that can be conceived of in this context is a life of some finite duration.
However long that duration might be, it remains infinitely remote from the putative idea of an endless life. Evidently, Fischer wants to take issue with my claim that evaluating the desirability of a life requires the ability, at least in principle, to evaluate—and hence to conceive of—the life as a whole. But I do not see how the response he provides comes even close to defusing the worry that this ability is necessary. To reemphasize my point: evaluating the desirability of a life is a matter of evaluating how the life goes, and determining how the life goes depends on having a conception of the life as a whole.
I am not suggesting that it requires our having a richly imagined narrative comprising every detail of the life; I am suggesting merely that it requires our being able to build up a fully rounded picture of the overall course of the life, the details of which could in principle be filled in to a point where we are satisfied that we have enough upon which to base a well-informed judgment.
The problem with a purportedly endless life is that we could go on acquiring more information indefinitely, and still the life would infinitely outstrip our picture of it. We could never even begin to form a picture of how the life as a whole goes. The problem is not a merely practical one.
Evaluating finite lives, of any duration, is an incommensurate project. A third problem with the Makropulos debate is that its contributors often ignore distinctions between different kinds of immortality—between, for example, a life that is supposed to be necessarily immortal and one that is supposed to be contingently immortal, a distinction that was introduced by Hunter Steele but has received little subsequent attention.
Footnote 8 As I have previously argued, conceptual incoherence attaches to each of these varieties of supposed immortality, but making the distinction enables us to see more clearly what sort of incoherence arises.
Burley : — Let us, then, call this the lack of distinctions problem. Since I previously raised this issue, some effort has been given to differentiating alternative models of immortality. This individual can die, but she never will die because, as things actually turn out, no mortal harms will ever beset her.
The difficulties that Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin see with the kinds of immortality they identify are practical rather than conceptual. It is desirable, they say, because even if the imagined person came to know by some means that Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin do not think it important to specify that she would never die, there would be plenty of projects to keep her contentedly occupied, such as raising children and visiting impressive architectural monuments before they crumble to dust.
Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin : Should we accept so readily that we know of what we are expected to conceive? If she lives on earth, is it the earth that, as astronomers tell us, will become uninhabitable within a billion years or so and will eventually be consumed by the sun? If it is somewhere else—or if we are expected to envisage our heroine evading death by escaping from earth before it gets too hot—are we to picture her as continuing to live in our universe?
If so, what about the heat death that Cave mentions? Perhaps the answer is that we should not trouble ourselves with the details but should simply accept that she does, as a matter of stipulated fact, go on living a fulfilling life—forever—as a human being.
Of course if you think away the conceptual connections by which your idea of the sun is related to your idea of the earth and so on, then you will feel free to entertain any conception you like; for goodness knows what you are then left with—a picture of a shining orb perhaps, which you still call the sun although nothing any longer entitles you to.
I shall allow that you can properly call it a sphere because it has a circular shape to it; but apart from that, its nature is now entirely indeterminate, for it is not thought to be composed of anything in particular.
It is not thought to have a composition at all in fact, and it is not clear to what logical category anything you said about it would belong.
But if all that can strictly be said of it is that it is round , then what you have arrived at is an idealization—pure sphericalness or autos ho kuklos. Holland : — Footnote 9. In each case, the conceptual surroundings have been so pared down or left indeterminate that we are handed nothing but a bare abstraction. To complete this summary of the misgivings that I have about the Makropulos debate, let me mention a fourth problem, which could be called the mortal values objection.
This is that the debaters frequently overlook the extent to which our comprehension of ourselves—human beings—as mortal informs our understanding of who and what we are and of the values we hold dear. Are we, then, left with the conclusion that there can be no intelligible talk about immortality or eternal life?
That is far from the conclusion that I wish to draw. In my deflationary interventions I have, I hope, always been mindful to differentiate between the ways in which participants in the Makropulos debate use these terms on the one hand and the ways in which the terms are used in religious contexts on the other. The distinction needs to be handled carefully, however, since it would be implausible to insist that there is no overlap between these two contexts, namely the respective contexts of analytic philosophical debate and of religious discourse.
Nor should we imply that all religious talk about immortality or eternal life forms a mass that is not itself internally diverse. There are undoubtedly many ways in which these terms find a place in religious language, and it would be unwise to generalize about the sense that the talk has across this full linguistic range.
Rather than attempt a broad survey, however, my purpose here is to examine a particular religious conception of eternal life that has been largely neglected in the philosophy of religion, and which stands in contrast to anything centrally considered in the Makropulos debate.
It is what we might call a conception of eternal life as a present possession, and it has some intriguing resonances with ideas in the philosophy of time. Although a full exposition would require more space than I have here, I shall at least begin to explore some aspects of it, with specific attention to its ethical implications.
Footnote A popular source for such theologians has been the Johannine writings of the New Testament, with the Gospel of John central among them. We are taught, to be sure, that God wishes to bring us to eternal life; but it is a glaring confusion to equate eternal life with endless survival.
As the notion of eternal life is used in the Johannine writings, for instance, it is spoken of as a present possession, a quality of life, not a limitless quantity; nor is it something that happens after death but in this present lifetime.
Jantzen : The challenge for the theologian and for the philosopher of religion is to provide a fuller articulation of what this conception of eternal life as a present possession really amounts to.
One way of beginning to spell it out is to consider four themes that are characteristic of theological expositions of the topic. Theologians who, like Rahner, espouse the idea of eternal life as something present are apt to replace talk of a life after or subsequent to death with talk of the achievement or fulfillment of eternal life in or through death. There are, no doubt, many questions and conundrums that the condensed exposition provided above raises concerning the idea of eternal life as a present possession.
Although it would be overambitious to try to resolve all those issues here, I can at least begin to consider a couple of the most pressing. Without needing to enter into the fraught debate over whether presentism or eternalism or neither of them is ultimately true, we can discern that the affinity I have just mentioned offers a potential bridge of understanding for secular philosophers who are trying to come to grips with the theological idea of the eternality of a finite human life.
Le Poidevin : — Although such philosophers tend not to take the further, theological, step of describing this four-dimensional universe, with our lives as integral components, as standing in an eternal relation to God, their conception of the eternal reality of our finite lives echoes the theological notion of eternal life as a present possession—as a characteristic of the life that each of us is now living.
In this respect, the philosophy of time can assist in showing that there is no good reason for supposing that the latter theological notion has merely replaced metaphysics with ethics; rather, we can see it as being infused with both metaphysical and ethical elements.
Rahner b : 88 By expressing it in these terms he is drawing a contrast between, on the one hand, an attitude characterized by sincere moral seriousness, which conceives of the moral life as having the profoundest importance, and on the other hand, an alternative attitude according to which the importance of the moral life is merely relative.
“The End of Immortality!” Eternal Life and the Makropulos Debate
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