Saturday, January 19, 2019

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The Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz once wrote, “In our deepest convictions, reaching into the very depths of our being, we deserve to live forever. We experience our transitoriness and mortality as an act of violence perpetrated against us.” As soon as I read those sentences (they’re in the Polish poet’s late book, Milosz’s ABC’s), I took them to heart.

Immortality is a concept that makes increasing sense to me (although I’m not expecting any personal benefits from it). I’m not talking about faith-based immortality where, after you depart this mortal coil, your soul ascends to heaven and joins the chorus of warbling angels forever after. No, I’m talking about real immortality.

When I say immortality makes increasing sense, I mean that as an idea it becomes meaningful in the course of the evolutionary and historical development of human beings. At some point in pre-history, proto-humans didn’t have self-consciousness, selves, or language. Then, at a later time they did. In the development of self-consciousness, humans became able to reflect on their own deaths.

The first big conceptual solution to the problem of death was the human creation of immortal gods who allegedly provided humans with immortal souls that would continue to exist after the person’s death. But a couple of millennia later, with modern science, Darwin, evolution and much else, we began to suspect that the gods and our souls were likely little more than a psychological projection, at best an anti-deathwish.

By the mid-20th century, thanks to Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism, we had the idea that we were living in a godless universe that didn’t offer any pre-planned purposes for us. What we did with our lives was up to us, and the prospect of our death was an absurdity, given that we didn’t have afterlives. The sensible conclusion to draw from this dismal fate might be to engage in a practical, scientific program of immortality, or at least for starters, a project to achieve significant life extension. All of which brings me (and doesn’t bring me) to John Leslie’s Immortality Defended (Blackwell, 2007).

Everybody knows that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but sometimes you can’t even tell what a book’s about by its title. Given my thoughts about the subject of extending life, as soon as I learned of University of Guelph philosophy professor emeritus Leslie’s Immortality Defended, I figured, this is for me. Professor Leslie, I expected, would provide some philosophic backup for an immortality project, deal with the people who wearily sigh that they don’t want to be immortal because it would be boring, and chew over myriad ethical and other conceptual conundrums involved in life extension schemes.

Alas, not to be. Leslie, it turns out, is one of a small group of thinkers who take seriously the question, Why is there a world (or universe, or cosmos)? He admits that any answer you offer to the question of why there is something rather nothing is going to be pretty much speculation. However, he argues, some speculation is better than other speculation, and one particular patch of speculation is better than the contrary claim that there is no reason for the existence of the multiverse.

Leslie’s cosmological speculation has the virtue of being mercifully brief–his book is a pamphlet of barely a hundred pages, and distills several of his previous and longer works. He proposes what he describes as a kind of pantheism, drawn from the thought of Plato and Spinoza. There are two parts to his idea of why we are here, both of which I’ll mention without trying to connect all the dots.

One part is the possibility that the world exists because there is an ethical ground for it to exist. On Leslie’s reading of Plato, “the actual world of people and objects is a good one and it exists simply because it ought to. Its ethical requiredness–the fact that there is an ethical need for it–is itself creatively effective.”

And who or what are the agents who make real this ethical necessity? According to Leslie, “The most plausible candidates… would be minds perhaps worth calling divine, minds that contemplated (‘knew,’ ‘thought about’) absolutely everything worth contemplating.”

Conjoin this “Platonic” speculation with the pantheism of the 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza, says Leslie. One way of interpreting Spinoza, he argues, is as follows: “There is a divine mind, a mind whose reality is due to the eternal ethical need for it. We, like all the other intricately structured things in our universe, exist merely because the mind in question thinks of this universe in all its details.” In short, we are thoughts in the mind of, well, why not call him God?

Immortality gets into the picture sideways. If the divine mind, or ethically necessary creative principle, God, or however you conceptualize it, contemplates everything, then it could also contemplate its embodied thought (namely, us) living on eternally in its thoughts after the thought that is our corporeal form disintegrated. Leslie offers various immortality options in the divine mind from standard afterlives to what he calls the “Einsteinian type” (which I won’t try to explain, but it involves quantum physics and the “fourth dimension”).

All of this speculation is interesting, at least to us philosopher-types, but as is obvious, it doesn’t have much to do with the kind of immortality I’m talking about. On its own terms, it seems to be a kind of metaphysical version of “intelligent design,” and I’m not any more persuaded by it than I am by efforts to argue for evolutionary “intelligent design.”

I think I’d answer Leslie’s cosmological question about why there’s something rather than nothing not by claiming, There’s no reason for the world-universe-cosmos to exist. Rather, I’d say, if there is a reason, we don’t know what the reason is, and it isn’t even clear that the notion of “a reason” applies to this sort of question. However, what we do know, and have evidence for, is something about the evolution of this universe since the “Big Bang” some 13 billion years ago, and something about the evolution of life on earth and human beings over the last 3.5 billion years. It’s limited knowledge, but it’s not speculation.

As for real immortality, I guess someone like Ray Kurzweil, the author of The Age of Spiritual Machines (1998) and The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2005) may be more helpful than Leslie’s pantheism. Kurzweil thinks about the practical stuff necessary to contemplate life extension. If we can replace organs, knees, hips and the like, would it be possible to more efficiently re-grow the parts we need to function comfortably, or would it be possible to reverse the aging process of cellular life? Is it possible to meld portions of our biological being with intelligent machines? If we could live to, say, 120 or 130, on average, we wouldn’t want extended life if it merely means further incapacitation, so how can we avoid decrepitude? These are the problems immortalists like Kurzweil contemplate. In a sense, they’re speculations, too, but unlike Leslie’s cosmic speculations, these fantasies could lead to reality.

When it comes to immortality, I’m pretty much a devout Woody Allenist. As the great middlebrow thinker (and pretty good filmmaker, too) put it, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”


Vancouver, Sept. 21, 2007. Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in N. Vancouver, B.C. His new book is Topic Sentence: A Writer’s Education. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Books in Canada.

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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