De Anza College Philosophy Ideas in the State of Being Dead Essay
Topic: Consider Chapter 10: Is the state of “being dead” a bad for the individual who dies?
On Death and Immortality
In the last forty years a vast amount of philosophical energy has been spent on analyzing the metaphysics of
death and its attendant puzzles. This chapter will adumbrate some of the key issues and arguments involving the
metaphysics of death, ending with a discussion of the desirability of medical immortality” and “true immortality.”
For the purpose of this chapter, discussions of supernaturalism and religious conceptions of death shall be set
aside. This does not mean that such considerations are not valuable or important. Alternatively, it means that
such issues are largely immune to philosophical and scientific investigation. Religious studies or theology are far
more suitable venues for discussions involving particular religious notions of God, death, and the supernatural.
For these reasons we shall analyze death in secular terms. For the purposes of this discussion, we shall
conceptualize death as the permanent cessation of life, where life involves specific biological functioning: the
heart’s beating the brain’s operating in a way that regulates and controis metabolism, organ activity,
consciousness, cellular repair, and so on. Death is the extinction of (or total cessation of) life.
One of the foremost questions regarding the metaphysics and axiology of death pertains to death’s “badness.” is
death a bad thing for the individual who dies? This is not the same question as: “Is dying a bad thing?” While the
two questions might seem the same (or similar), they are quite different. Most philosophers would argue that
dying is the last part of life and that it involves, or can involve a great deal of pain and suffering. It is taken for
granted that pain and suffering is bad and therefore, “dying” is bad. It is bad for the person who is dying (and for
the friends and family who love the person who is dying). Moreover, it is easy to identify the subject of dying.
namely the person who is experiencing dying. Thus, there are few philosophers who believe that deep puzzles or
quandaries surround the process of “dying.”
Death, however, it different. For example, some philosophers have argued (or pointed out) that when death is, the
person is not so if the harm of death is thought to take place when the individual is dead, then it is harm without
an existing subject. This is deeply puzzling. How can a nonexistent subject, an experiential blank be harmed? If,
however, one thinks that the harm of death takes place while the individual is still alive, then the harm of death will
take place before death actually occurs, which is (again) quite perplexing. Another set of issues pertains to how
one views the time before one exists (–which is called “prenatal nonexistence”–) and the time after one exists (–
which is called “postmortem nonexistence”–). The idea here is that the time before we are born is not bad, even
though it is a time when we do not exist. The time after we die is also a time when we do not exist. In fact, it is
exactly identical to (-a “mirror image of —) the time before we were born. So why is the time after we die to be
lamented or considered “bad? It is “symmetrical to or a “mirror image of the time before we were born.
Analyzing these aspects of time (–prenatal nonexistence and postmortem nonexistence–) is called “The Mirror
Image Argument” / “The Symmetry Problem.” Let us delve into these issues in more detail.
1. The Badness of Death
The Hellenistic philosopher Epicurus famously wrote a Letter to Menoeceus saying: “So death, the most terrifying
of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us but when death comes, then we do not
exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no
more.” Many ordinary people would agree with Epicurus that death is “the most terrifying of ills.” However, not as
many people would agree with him that “death is nothing to us.” Most people would likely agree that death is
indeed very bad (at least in some cases). Philosophers concerned with such issues typically identify three puzzles
that invite serious consideration: (1) How can an experiential blank be bad?; (2) At what time does the badness
(or harm) of death take place?; (3) How is death different from the time before one is born (i.e., “prenatal
One response to how a mere experiential blank (i.e., death) can be a bad thing for an individual involves the view
that death is a bad thing for an individual insofar as it deprives her of what would have been all things
considered, a desirable continuation of her life. When death comes one is deprived” of opportunities and
experiences. One is deprived of fulfilling goals, engaging in projects, enjoying loving relationships, experiencing
pleasures, and so on. The deprivation theory seems, intuitively, to capture some aspects of why death is bad.
However, there are some serious philosophical complications.
One can bring up the “Symmetry Argument’ as a response: We do not (typically) lament the time before we were
born. But if one was born earlier, then one could have fulfilled many desires, engaged in many projects, loved
various people, etc. Thus, one could say that having been born “late” (as opposed to earlier) deprives one of
many experiences. Being born “late” deprives us too, and in exactly the same way. Yet, such lamentation is not
typical, nor does one intuitively think that being born when one was born is bad—i.e., we do not (typically) hold
that it constitutes a genuine harm to us. Again, the question is: Am I harmed for being born when I was born
rather than having been born a few decades (or centuries) earlier? As a matter of logical consistency, it seems as
if one should believe in “deprivation in both situations. Yet, most feel deprivation only in regards to death (not
Other potential problems besetting the deprivation argument concerns the subject of harm, the meaning of
“harm,” and the time of the alleged harm. While it is common to hold that death can be a bad thing for the
individual who dies, this intuition is subject to doubt. Some argue that the individual has gone out of existence by
the time death occurs. The individual is not “there at all. Hence, death is not bad for the individual who dies. In
fact, it cannot be bad. When death occurs, there is no individual at all, just an experiential blank. There is no
subject of harm whatsoever. The subject” is out of existence when death occurs. This line of reasoning holds that
something can be a bad thing or harm for an individual at a time only if that individual exists at that time. This is
the commonsense view that one has to be there to be the subject of harm or misfortune. This view holds that
something can be bad for an individual only if it is connected in some way with negative or unpleasant
experiences of the individual. Thus, it naturally follows that in order for an individual to have negative experiences
at a time, she must exist at that time. This leads to a key question: How can something be bad for an individual if
the individual has no negative experiences whatsoever—i.e., no pain or suffering as a result of the thing in
question? Furthermore, how could someone have any negative experiences if that someone does not exist?
Can Someone Be Harmed without Experiencing Anything Bad?
To show that death is bad one must connect badness and negative experiences in some fashion. Some
philosophers hold the following view: If something can be a bad thing (or can constitute harm) for an individual at
a time only if the individual experiences something negative (such as pain or suffering) at that time or latter, then
death cannot be bad for the individual who dies. On this view, there must be a “tight connection between
badness and an individual’s experience(s). On this view of death, an “actual experience requirement would not
be met (since the person is out of existence) and, thus, death could not cause an experience of harm. A general
application of this view can be demonstrated by considering a simple example. Suppose that a professional
football player injures his knee during training. At the time of the injury the player feels great pain and is, thus,
harmed. But what is more, the player experiences something negative for many weeks after the initial injury: he
cannot play in future games, he loses a large part of his salary; he is deprived of opportunities to prove his worth
to the team; he is deprived of build a record of outstanding performance during that season, etc. This case, and
innumerable ones like it, demonstrate that badness is connected to actual experiences—both at the time of the
harm and after the time of the harm.
There is good reason, some philosophers suggest, to question this line of reasoning. They argue that it can be
shown that a person is harmed without experiencing anything negative as a result. Many examples can be
produced in which it seems that a person is harmed by something but never experiences anything negative as a
result. Robert Nozick famously writes:
Imagine we read the biography of a man who felt happy, took pride in his work, family, friends, etc.
But we also read that his children, secretly, despised him; his wife, secretly, scorned him having
innumerable affairs; his work was a subject of ridicule among all others, who kept their opinions
from him: every source of satisfaction in this man’s life was built upon a falsehood, a deception. Do
you, in reading about this man’s life, think, “What a wonderful life! I wish I, or my children, could
lead it?” This man lived a lie, though not one that he told. Reading Nozick
In this case, the general “intuition” is that something bad can befall a person who does not suffer or experience
anything negative as a result. Many hypothetical examples similar to the story above could be developed.
Someone could be deceived, betrayed, spied upon, secretly scorned, etc. In each instance an elaborate story
could be told that would suggest that something “bad” has happened to someone without their knowing about it
and (–most importantly–) without their experiencing anything negative (directly or indirectly) as a result. These
examples are intended to show that someone can be harmed without experiencing anything bad. This challenges
any type of “tight connection requirement between harm (–or badness–) and actual experience.
Critics who want to maintain a connection between bad and harm can weaken” the requirement, devising a
“looser connection between badness and negative experience. These critics argue that (in Nozick’s story above
and in similar ones like it) the unwitting victim could have known or found out about the badness and thus “could
have been harmed.” Actual harm is not required, merely the possibility of harm. Thus, we can apply this to
Nozick’s story: The man in question could have found out that others scorned his work, that his wife was an
adulteress, that his “friends” mocked him in private, etc. The fact that the man did not find out, and thus did not
actually experience anything negative, is irrelevant. He could have been harmed and this is good enough.
In order to test the weakened experience requirement we can add to Nozick’s example. Let us suppose that the
man who is secretly scorned by his so-called friends, family, coworkers, and loved ones is guarded against any
possibility of discovering facts that could lead to his being harmed and experiencing something negative. The man
is guarded by a “watcher,” a person who secretly watches and monitors everything that happens to him. The
watcher is there, ready at a moment’s notice, to shield and guard the man from finding out any unfortunate
information. If someone were to call the man to tell him of the truth of his situation that phone call would be
blocked! The same is true of emails, text messages, anonymous letters, etc. The watcher is always perfectly
situated to intervene such that it would never be possible for the man to learn of his unfortunate situation. It simply
is not possible for him to experience anything negative and thus, experience (or feel) harm.
Philosophers are divided into two camps on these types of examples. The first camp believes that in both cases
the subject is not harmed. The second camp believes that in both cases the subject is, indeed, harmed. Let us
explore both positions starting with the former. Those who do not believe the man has been harmed in any way
suggest that in the first case the man is blissfully ignorant and experiences nothing negative, nothing bad. If this
person were to have discovered the truth about his situation, then he would have been harmed. But as the story
goes, he is blissfully ignorant and experiences nothing bad. In the second case, the man is guaranteed not to
experience anything bad because the watcher would intervene in such a way as to prevent the man from every
discovering the truth. This camp holds that an actual bad experience is necessary for harm. These philosophers
argue that an agent who cannot have the relevant negative experiences cannot be harmed for the simple reason
that the agent cannot have the requisite negative experiences. Consider the following example offered by the first
Let us suppose that an intoxicated driver is swerving a Prius down the street. Such behavior is risky insofar as it
puts others (particularly pedestrians) at risk of being harmed. Let us also suppose that an innocent pedestrian is
walking down the street when the drunk-driver is swerving all over the road. It is natural to believe that the
pedestrian is at risk of being hit and, thus, seriously harmed by the intoxicated driver. However, let us suppose
that the road has a set of barriers and barricades in place such that no vehicle whatsoever, no less a Prius, could
endanger a pedestrian on the other side. In this case, the drunk-driver’s risky and reckless behavior cannot harm
the pedestrian. The pedestrian cannot experience anything bad, and thus she cannot be harmed by the drunk-
driver. There is not, of course, a tight connection between negative experiences and harm, nor is there a loose
connection in which one “might’ suffer some probably bad experience. The barriers and blockades completely
eliminate any possible connection between bad experiences and harm. The pedestrian is not harmed and could
not be harmed, period!
Those who are in the second camp believe that one can be harmed even when there is no negative experience
present, nor any type of “risk” of a negative experience occurring. Such philosophers might offer a normative
moral argument to support this position. These philosophers argue that an individual’s agency in the world is
bound up with her having various interests. For example, one has an interest in being successful, having mutually
loving relationships, being free to make personal choices, and so on. One has an interest in not being harmed,
not being lied to, not being the victim of pernicious lies. One has an interest in not having one’s health put at risk,
or in not being maliciously slandered unjustly. In the two cases based upon Nozick’s innocent man the notion of
interests is essential. In the original case the man lives a life in which all around him lie to him, scorn him,
besmirch him, plot against him, etc. His interests are harmed by such activity. A “harm” is an infringement upon
(or setback to an interest. Hence, the man’s interests are harmed in Nozick’s original example. In the second
example, the same thing happens with the qualification that a “watcher” is always ready to intervene just in case
the man were to learn the truth of his situation. Again, the man’s interests are harmed. In fact, they are doubly
harmed as the “watcher” is always poised to interfere with the man’s interests. Hence, the second case is actually
worse than the first case.
An argument from normative moral theory would suggest that the man has an intrinsic interest in not being the
victim of deception or adultery or malicious slander. While he does not directly or indirectly) experience anything
negative, he is still harmed by the immoral acts perpetrated against him. His knowing or not knowing is irrelevant
to his normative interests, which are violated (i.e., “harmed”) in both cases.
This type of approach broadens / expands the notion of an agent beyond actual experience or potential
experience so as to include normative interests. In so doing, the agent’s interests are harmed in the cases
outlined (–according to philosophers in the second camp–). In applying these concepts to the discussion of
death, the argument would suggest that the agent who dies is harmed, despite the fact that she does not
“experience anything bad. She is harmed because her normative interests in living a longer life are infringed
upon. Thus, death could be a bad thing for the individual who does, despite the fact that she cannot experience
anything negative as a result of being dead.
The Timing Problem
If death can be a bad thing, when is it a bad thing? Normally one thinks that an agent is harmed by a set of events
or states of affairs during or after the events in question. Recall the example of the injured professional football
star. Typically, it is necessary to distinguish the time of the harm events from the time of the harm. The football
player is harmed when the injury takes place, i.e., during the events that injure his knee. After the injury, the
football player must deal with memories of the accident, the ongoing pain, physical rehabilitation, and
psychological distress due to not playing and fearing for his career. In the case of death, we must ask: How can
the time of the harm of one’s death be during one’s death? (Death is understood as the state of being dead, not
the transition or process of dying.) The timing puzzle, probably first articulated by Epicurus, is understood by
contemporary philosophers thus: When the person exists, death does not, and when death exists, the person
does not. If a person, P, is harmed at a particular time, T, then P has the property of being harmed at or during T.
But if P has a property at or during T, it would seem that P must exist at or during T. So how can death be a bad
thing for the individual who dies? It appears to be a harm without a subject (–a harm at or during 7 without a
subject existing at or during 1.) This is sometimes called, within philosophy of language, the problem of
predication.” There must be a subject to bear a property / predicate. How can an individual who does not exist
during the time at which he is dead have the property “being harmed at that time?
In general, there are three mainstream responses to this problem: Priorism, Subsequentialism, and Atemporalism.
Let us examine each in turn. The philosopher who espouses priorism holds that the time of the harm of death is
before death takes place. In other words, the person’s death harms the person while she still exists. The subject”
of the harm is the person who is still alive and is unaware of the harm.
Priorism gives the property of harm to a subject, the living person who has not yet died. The property or predicate
has a proper subject, the person who exists. One’s death is a harm at a time or times during which one is alive.
This is an odd view and runs counter to commonsense. How can something that has not happened, and might not
happen for eighty years, harm an agent now? Pick any living child, such as Jose Rodriquez. Jose is now four
years old. Let us say that Jose will live until the age of 101 years old. How is Jose being harmed now, at age four,
by his death 97 years in the future? This is quite puzzling. Being harmed by the status of being dead prior to its
occurrence is just weird. Intuitively this makes little sense. Hence, few philosophers are happy with this theory.
Another idea is that the harm of death takes place after the individual goes out of existence. This is called
“subsequentism. On this view, the individual is harmed after her death, which invokes the problem of
predication.” Again, the problem can be stated thus: How can a non-existing subject have a property subsequent
to her going out of existence? While this is a genuine problem, there are some plausible solutions. For example,
Plato has properties now despite the fact that he does not exist now. Plato has the properties of being a
legendary philosopher,” “being written about by Harvard professors,* *being a significant influence upon and over
a millennia of philosophers,” etc. Thus, attributing predicates to non-existing persons is a common everyday
practice. For example, Harriet Tubman has now, after her death, the property of “being universally considered a
national hero.” Thus, individuals can have a property now, although the individual does not exist now.
Lastly, “atemporalism holds the view that death is a harm for the individual who dies, but at no particular time.
Some things, philosophers argue, are categorically good while others are categorically bad. For example, one
might argue that being happy or being healthy is both intrinsically good and categorically good for human beings.
Other things, however, such as relentless pain, torture, slavery, wanton murder, and deprivation are intrinsically
bad as well as categorically bad. According to atemporalism “being dead” is categorically bad for the individual
who dies in much the same way that torture is bad for the individual tortured. It is not simply bad at one particular
time, but bad always and categorically. In this fashion, atemporalism sees no need to assign a “time” to the
badness of being dead. It is simply bad categorically.
While philosophers who engage in the metaphysics and axiology of death differ in respect to the timing problem,
most strongly prefer either subsequentism or atemporalism. As theories, they have far few problems than
priorism. While a few other positions are sometimes suggest in reply to the timing problem, the positions
elaborated above are typically the most common.
The last theory that we shall examine can be called “the preference thwarting” theory of death’s badness. On
this view, life has meaning in virtue of an individual’s satisfying various preference, developing goals and projects,
pursuing them, and bringing them to fruition. Some goals may involve building personal relationships. Other goals
may involve success in business, spiritual accomplishments, artistic achievements, and so on. The state of being
“dead,” on this view, “frustrates and “thwarts the realization of those preferences. This argument answers MIA
by saying that there is asymmetry in respect to the time before you were born and the time after you die. Before
you were born it was not possible to satisfy any preference because you did not exist. However, death thwarts
the possibility of satisfying preferences and projects.
Let us consider Latisha Brown. Before Latisha was born, she has no preference, no goals, no projects, no
aspirations, etc. She did not exist, thus she had no preferences. However, once she is born (and, thus, she is in
existence) she begins to devise goals, plans, aspirations, and projects. She wants to attend medical school and
become a surgeon. She desires to find a partner and have children. She desires to have grandchildren. She is
also fascinated with the mysteries of the cosmos and desires to learn as much cutting-edge physics as is
possible. She desires to write a Nobel-prize winning book. While Latisha is alive, such preferences can be
satisfied by her working towards such goals. However, her death totally ends any possibility of her achieving
certain goals and fulfilling certain aspirations. Suppose that she goes out of existence at age 55. Her sad early
death thwarts her preference to see her grandchildren grow into adulthood. Further, suppose that she was only on
chapter one of her book at the time of her death. Thus, her goal of writing a great novel and winning the Novel
Prize for literature is frustrated, etc. Therefore, on this view, death is a preference-thwarting phenomenon that is
bad for the individual who dies.
The opposite of death is life. To be immune from death is to be immortal. Is immortality a good thing for a human
being? Should one desire to live forever? Is immortality all that it is cracked up to be? Some philosophers strongly
argue that immortality would be a bad thing for an individual. Others are more optimistic. For purposes of this
discussion immortality will be understood as living forever and never dying. Thus, this discussion is not talking
about living in an afterlife or being reincarnated. Those are fascinating topics for religious studies, theology, and
History and literature are replete with stories of mortals seeking to become immortal. The Epic of Gilgamesh
(1800 BC.) and The Quest For The Holy Grail (around 1190 AD) are two well-known examples. Within
contemporary philosophy discussions of immortality there are two key concepts at play and a series of axiological
The Mirror Image Argument (MIA) / The Symmetry Problem
The Roman philosopher Lucretius (roughly 94 A.D.-51 A.D.) wrote in his magnum opus, On The Nature of
Things, an argument contending that death is not a bad for the individual who dies. He wrote:
Look back again to see how the unending expanse of past time, before we are born, has been
nothing to us. For Nature holds this forth to us as a mirror image of the time to come after our
death. Is there anything terrible there, does anything seem gloomy? Is it not more peaceful than
This passage designates the infamous “Mirror Image Argument” also known as “The Symmetry Problem.” For
convenience it shall be hereafter referred to as MIA (Mirror Image Argument). The argument says that we do not
(typically consider the time before our birth bad, nor the fact that we were born when we were born. The time
after we die is the mirror image of the time before we were born. Therefore, there is no reason to hold that dying
when we do is a bad thing. The time before we were born is exactly symmetrical to the time after our death. Both
are experiential blanks. We are clearly not upset by the former, thus we should not be upset by the latter. Indeed,
one could say: We are indifferent to the time before we were born, thus we should be indifferent to the time after
we die. There is nothing to fear in one’s having the status of being dead.”
MIA has caused a great deal of philosophical reflection upon our common intuition that death is a bad thing (or,
more precisely, that being dead is a bad). There are a number of different ways to engage the argument. One
might argue that our intuition that being dead is bad is correct. However, MIA demonstrates that our non-
existence prior to our birth (“prenatal non-existence”) is also a bad thing. We should in order to be logically
consistent, morn the fact that we did not exist before our birth date. Since the two states of affairs are identical,
utterly symmetrical, one should have logically consistent attitudes—both prenatal and postmortem non-existence
are bad. For many theorists this line of reasoning seems off. Many believe that, for reasons that need to be
explained, the two periods of time are not symmetrical. The correct attitude towards the period of time before birth
should be indifference. The correct attitude towards the state of being dead should be lament, as being dead is a
bad. Thus, the two are not symmetrical. The key, if one holds this view, is to explain why the two states are not
the same, not “mirror images” of each other.
Lucretius used MIA to argue that the two periods are, in fact, perfectly symmetrical. However, our attitudes
towards both periods—the time before one is born (prenatal non-existence) and the time after one is dead
(postmortem non-existence)-should be cheerful indifference. We “experience” nothing in both cases. We are an
experiential blank in both cases. We are not harmed by either periods. Thus, we should be totally indifferent to
both of them
Some philosophers begrudgingly admit that, metaphysically, the two periods are the same. Thus, they admit that
metaphysical symmetry is true of MIA. However, the asymmetry comes into place normatively! We do not hold
the two periods “the same in respect to values. We are or should be) mostly indifferent to the period before we
were born, as it is not a bad for the individual. However, we should consider the state of being dead as bad, for it
is a genuine bad to the person who has gone out of existence. Thus, the two periods are not symmetrical in every
way. We should focus upon the normative asymmetry and adjust our attitudes accordingly.
A different approach to MIA is to argue that there is a real genuine metaphysical difference at play, namely, “the
asymmetry of possibility.” This argument can be stated in simple terms but involves other perplexing issues
regarding the metaphysics of personal identity and numerical identity over time. For our purposes, those non-
trivial (and extraordinarily complex) issues within the metaphysics of personal identity shall be bracketed as they
necessitate a longer discussion that is not possible here. The asymmetry of possibility argument holds that it is
possible for an individual to live longer than she actually does whereas it is not possible for an individual to be
born earlier (or significantly earlier) than she actually was. On this view, it is conceptually coherent to imagine that
a particular person’s life could be extended—that the individual could die later (even significantly later) and still be
the exact same person. However, on this view, it is not conceptually coherent (or possible) to imagine that a
particular person could have been born earlier (or significantly earlier) than the individual was without losing
personal identity (that is, without the person becoming a totally different person).
So, for example, let us suppose that Javier Mendez lived from 1992 to 2065. On this view, it is possible that Javier
could have lived twenty years longer than he actually did (and thus dying in 2085). If this were the case, Javier
Mendez would have been the exact same person. Instead of dying at 73 years old, he would have died at 93
years old. Adding twenty years to Javier’s life would not change” his identity as “Javier Mendez. However, on
this view, if Javier Mendez was born twenty years earlier, in 1972, then he could not be “the same person” as the
Javier Mendez that lived from 1992-2065. The 1972 Javier would be a totally different person. Thus, there is a
real and genuine difference between the time before one was born and the time after one dies. There is
metaphysical asymmetry. Therefore, we are justified in not caring about the time before we were born, but we are
justified in caring deeply about our death, and the time period after we die. This argument turns on (i.e., depends
upon) some conceptual theory of personal identity that would rule out the possibility of being born earlier. This is
tricky metaphysical territory, which we cannot explore in the present chapter.
questions about them. The first concept is immortality as defined above, which is sometimes called “true
immortality.” We shall use the term “immortality,” as previously noted. The key questions here are normative and
attempt to assess whether or not immortality would be a good or a bad for a human being. Philosophers are split
on this issue. The second concept pertains to artificially extending the length of one’s life through technology. This
is sometimes called “medical immortality.” It is not true immortality, as the subject can be killed in any number of
ways and will always “die after a lengthy lifespan. We shall simply call this artificially extended life.” Here too
some of the key questions pertain to the desirability of such life extension. Other questions for both pertain to
environmental issues, social justice issues, and the like. We shall focus upon the main normative questions: Is
immortality a good or bad for a human being? Is artificial life extension a good or bad for a human being? Again,
philosophers are split on these questions. Some think that one or both would be a good, others think one or both
would be a bad.
Let us begin by considering “artificially extending life.” We shall adumbrate contemporary efforts to extend life
within science, business, big tech, and the resources and drive of the world’s ultra-rich and powerful. In the year
1900 the average life expectancy for a person living in a developed nation was 47 years old. In the year 1990 the
average life expectancy for a person living in a developed nation was 74 years old. In 2020 it is 80 years old. The
dramatic increase in life expectancy over the last one hundred years has been primarily through developments
within medicine and technology (such as medical testing equipment, drugs, vaccinations, MRI scans, medical
treatments, etc.). This leads many medical experts, geneticists, biomedical experts, scientists, venture capitalists,
billionaire tech moguls, and oligarchs to believe that it is not only possible, but highly realistic for human beings to
gain control over aging and human frailty so as to radically extend one’s life expectancy.
A slew of books and articles exist on these topics. Stephen Cave gives a general overview of many research
ideas in his Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization. Jonathan Weiner’s Long
for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality discusses medical remedies to aging. Guy Brown’s The
Living End: The Future of Death, Aging, and Immortality gives an analysis of the science behind life extension
efforts. Aubrey de Grey’s Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human
Aging in Our Lifetime has been extremely influential. Ray Kurzweil’s Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to
Live Forever, holds that radical life extension is only fifteen years away. Tad Friend wrote an article for the New
Yorker titled “The God Pill: Silicon Valley’s Quest for Eternal Life.” While dozens and dozens of other books and
articles exist, we shall focus upon key points from the most plausible research programs.
Aubrey de Grey, a Silicon Valley big tech mogul, emphasizes artificial life extension through genetic engineering,
stem cell research, and nanomedicine. Genetic engineering should be able to prevent many diseases, stem cells
could be used to develop new tissues, nerves, neurons, and could be used to replace “worn out organs and
tissues. Nanotechnology, engineering on the scale of atoms or molecules, can be used to repair our bodies from
the inside by using billions of tiny machines. Weiner and De Grey emphasize the need for us to repair our
metabolisms so as not to generate the waste byproducts that cause aging. Repairing our metabolism is the
preferred method, at the moment, for the aging malady. At the end of the day, the key concept that these artificial
life extension proponents aim towards is “escape velocity” Longevity escape velocity has to do with the point
when improvements to the comprehensiveness and safety of human life-extension treatments are being made
faster than people age.” When this happens, according to De Grey, we shall be able to extend our life expectancy
indefinitely, perhaps by 6,000 years. De Grey, in fact, thinks that humanity will reach this point in fifty years,
roughly in 2070. Ray Kurzweil, a Google executive, currently takes over 90 pills per day to extend his life. He
holds that we are currently on the threshold and that biotechnology will bring about “escape velocity” in just fifteen
years (around 2045). He also strongly believes that we shall shed out bodies and somehow be “uploaded” to
super computers that shall give us a new life in a “cloud.” (The notion of uploading consciousness into computers
is extremely contentious, and may be conceptually incoherent or impossible. There is no “science” or
understanding, regardless of Kurzweil’s fantasy, that understands the true nature of consciousness; there is no
current science that suggests that we are on the verge” of uploading human consciousness into a computer
cloud.” Hence, this last notion will not be discussed as a genuine aspect of artificial life extension.)
In sum, the key idea behind artificial life extension is that human beings-at some point in the near or distant
future—could understand human biology to a point where genetic engineering, biotechnology, nanotechnology,
stem cell science, etc. could “extend” a human life by hundreds or thousands of years. This idea is not a mere
fantasy, as each of the necessary sciences are, in genuine reality and in actual time, being developed. Artificial
life extension, to some degree or another, is logically possible, conceptually coherent, within the laws of science;
the mainstream proposals under discussion do not deviate from standard science as we know it (-i.e., genetic
science, microbiology, nanotechnology, stem cell research, etc.–). Thus, we shall not spend time worrying about
the technical details of the methods at play. We shall simply leave each science open-ended with the belief that
some type of life extension is possible and many scientists are working on it right now.
While some optimistic types believe that “escape velocity” shall enable humans to live for thousands of years, we
shall (–artificially–) place a cap on life extension at 6,000 years. This is a number suggested by fervent believers,
however it is not important philosophically. We shall set 6,000 years of life as the lifespan of artificial life
extension. Thus, we can ask: Would it be good for a person to live 6,000 years? Keep in mind that all recorded
history, from the first activities in the Nile Valley to the earliest villages in Mesopotamia, only span (roughly) 7,000-
10,000 years. The first archeological findings of any civilization in ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia date to (roughly)
5,000 B.C. (–some archeologists suggest 7,000 B.C.). This makes all recorded human history at roughly 7,000-
10,000 years. This should (hopefully) give the reader an idea of the length of time that artificial life extension will
offer an individual who achieves “escape velocity.” Imagine living every single day since the dawn of human
civilization. This is the amount of time that we are talking about, approximately.
It should be well noted that artificial life extension is not immortality. Firstly, one will die naturally after 6,000 years.
Secondly, it is certainly possible that someone may die in an accident, as life extension does not entail
invulnerability or super-human characteristics. Thus, one could fall off a cliff, drown, get swallowed by a Tsunami,
murdered by a criminal, hit by a truck, etc. It should be taken for granted that medical science could do a great
deal to generate new limbs, replace organs, etc. But human beings would certainly be vulnerable to the
precarious dangerous inherent within life itself. By contrast, “true immortality,” which we are simply calling
“immortality” is quite different. Immortality precludes death by definition. If a nuclear bomb was dropped on an
immortal, it would not scathe the individual. Someone who is immortal will never die, not even in 100 billion years.
Someone who is immortal will outlive our planet. For the purposes of this discussion, an immortal would stay
youthful forever, would not age past, say, 28 years old. An immortal would be unending and immune to all injury,
illness, and so on. True immortality is pure fiction. But achieving true immortality has been a human dream or
fantasy since the dawn of time. The question, philosophically, is whether or not immortality would be a good for an
individual. Is immortality really worth having?
Issues With Immortality: Problems, Challenges, Objections, and Rebuttals
The objections to (a) artificial life extension and (b) immortality are often the same, differing only in degree. For
this reason, we shall sketch the main objections and replies to them. One of the main objections that is leveled
against long life and immortality involves “indeterminate conceptual identity.” Almost everyone would agree that if
one extends an individual person’s life, or if that person were to become immortal, it would only be a “good” for
that person if the person retained her personal and numerical identity. For example, suppose Jones was offered
artificially long life as previously described. Such life extension would only be desirable” or “good” for Jones if
Jones remained the exact same person (metaphysically speaking). If the extension were to obliterate Jones
identity as Jones, then that would surely be a bad thing. Jones would only accept the gift of long life (or
immortality) if Jones knew that she would not become a different person.
The issue of personal identity and retaining numerical identity over time is an extraordinarily complex
metaphysical issues. Very briefly, the question at hand asks: In what, metaphysically speaking, does one’s
identity consist? For purposes of this brief introduction, there are three basic types of philosophical theories on the
Three Theories of Personal Identity
The first theory suggests that persons have God given “souls,” that bears personal identity and allows one and
the same individual to persist over time. Descartes, for example, is a philosopher who argues for this theory. The
theory posits that one’s identity has nothing to do with one’s body (or any part of one’s body). One’s identity
consists in having a non-bodily element (a soul), which is immaterial. This immaterial aspect of the person is not
part of the physical or material world. It does not have atoms, molecules, or any physical characteristics. It does
not exist in space/time as we know it. It has no shape, size, volume, mass, energy output, or extension. It is
located nowhere. This highly elusive “immaterial substance that “bears” one’s identity is not subject to any of the
laws of science, which deal with physical / material world. There are two extremely important objections to
theories of this type. First, it is quite difficult to understand “immaterial substance, as its characterization seems
identical to “nothing.” How could one distinguish immaterial substance from nothingness? Secondly, and most
importantly: How can something that is totally and completely immaterial causally interact with the material world?
The “soul” / “immaterial substance not only bears one’s personal identity, but it also is supposed to be “the mind”
of the person. Since, by definition and description) immaterial substance has no physical or material aspects and
is outside of the realm of science, how can it causally interact with the physical / material world? These two
problems, as well as its bizarre supernatural status, rules this theory of personal identity out of the running.
The second theory suggest that a person’s identity is, in one way or another, tied to her body.” This position is
called “sameness of body theory. The basic idea of this theory is that one’s identity is tied to one’s body. You
persist over time because your body persists over time. This theory, in its modern forms, typically incorporates
into it genetic factors, DNA, epigenetic elements, etc. Thus, one is a body with a specific, unique, biogenetic
profile. Thomas Hobbes might have been the first philosopher to spell this theory out in any detail. Bernard
Williams was a 20h century proponent of this theory. This theory follows the laws of science, avoids general
bizarreness, and accords with basic common sense. For example, let us consider Jones. Jones is the unique
person that she is not because of some immaterial substance, but because she has a specific physical, material
body. While her body will change somewhat over her lifetime, it basically remains the same. Thus, Jones is the
same person over time because Jones has the same body (genetic profile) over time. The most fundamental
problem with this theory is that there are good reasons to think that one’s body is not the bearer of identity—that
the body is not particularly relevant to one’s true personal identity. While many, many, examples can be given to
demonstrate this objection, let us consider the following.
In a dazzling thought experiment called “The Prince and The Cobbler,” John Locke famously tried to show that
Hobbes’ theory was fundamentally misguided and that identity does not track “stuff.” Locke asks us to image a
fantastic scenario in which a haughty 18 year old prince goes to sleep in his palace, enjoying every comfort the
palace has to offer. The prince stretches out and quickly falls asleep. On the other side of town, in a small dingy
workshop, a 60 year old cobbler (–.e., shoe maker–), also stretches out, exhausted from his day’s labor, and
curls up with a dirty blanket and falls asleep. As each drifts into a deep slumber, something unbelievable
happens; by means of wizardly, sorcery, magic, or whatever you care to imagine—the “consciousness” of the
prince (–complete with all of his memories, personality, and so on–) is transported into the body of the cobbler,
and the “consciousness of the cobbler (–complete with all of his memories, personality and so on–) is infused
within the body of the prince.
Upon awakening, the body of the prince awakens (–complete with all of the mentality of the cobbler–), looks
around the majestic palace. In shock and horror, utterly nonplussed, the old man looks into a mirror and sees the
youthful countenance of the prince. Terrified, the youthful “body of the prince (infused with the consciousness of
the cobbler) sneaks out of the palace and runs towards the workshop.
On the other side of town, the “body” of the cobbler awakens (–with the mentality of the prince–). Shocked and
horrified at the dingy workshop, the “body” of the cobbler throws the dirty blanket aside, gazes into a mirror with
utter horror, and dashes towards the palace. Approaching the palace guards, the elderly looking peasant calls to
the guards, insisting that he is the prince. Laughing, the guards gawk upon an elderly looking man and threaten to
put him in chains
Locke’s musing story of “The Prince and the Cobbler requires that we reflect and ask “After the ‘mind swap,’ who
is who?” Hobbes’ Sameness-of-Body theory (in whatever form one prefers) demands that we assert: “The body
of the prince is the prince, and the body of the cobbler is the cobbler.” Hobbes’ theory does not allow for any other
answer. Let us say that I designates the time before the mind-swap, and Tz represents the next day, the time
after the mind-swap. The Sameness-of-Body theorist maintains that personal identity it tied to body. Hobbes
theory gives no consideration to “mental content or any psychological factors. When looked at from that point of
view, nothing interesting has taken place in the story. Hobbesian materialists do not consider “memory or
“consciousness” as part of the identity equation.
Therefore, at T2 the body of the prince is the prince, period. The theory does not permit us to consider mental
content, memories, and consciousness. In like manner, at T2 the body of the cobbler is the cobbler, period. Again,
we have no reason to consider mental content, memories, and consciousness. Locke believes that analyzing the
story in such a manner is counter-intuitive and wrongheaded. A Lockean type theorist would find the results of a
Hobbesian perplexing. It seems as if commonsense and basic intuition would lead us to think that at Tz the body
of the prince contains the identity of the cobbler, and the body of the cobbler contains the identity of the prince. If
this is the correct way to analyze the situation, then a Hobbesian sameness-of-body theory of personal identity
must be wrong. Many philosophers believe that Locke’s example is dead-on and illuminates a deep and
devastating problem with any version of a Sameness-of-Body theory. What actually comprises identity, Locke
holds, is “Psychological Contiguityor “Psychological Connectedness,” something completely discarded on a
This leads to our Third theory of personal identity, “Psychological Contiguity theory.” Contemporary philosophers
seem to strongly prefer some version of a Lockean-Style Psychological Contiguity Theory. The story of the
“Prince and the Cobbler” is designed to elicit a “reaction that the Sameness of Body theory “gets it wrong.” A
Sameness-of-body analysis seems to give us the wrong result. Most philosophers and laypersons using
commonsense hold that at Tz the prince is in the body of the cobbler, and the cobbler is in the body of the prince.
The key, here, is that one’s identity “goes” where one’s mind and consciousness go. Identity, on this view, tracks
psychological contiguity, not body. Hobbes’s theory gets it all wrong by insisting that body is the source of
Locke maintains that an agent’s identity consists in consciousness and the ways consciousness is continuous (or
contiguous) over time. Unanimously, all Lockean-style theories hold that memory is quintessential to personal
identity. The “connections within consciousness that constitute “continuity” or “contiguity” is (primarily) memory.
Memory is one of the quintessential features that determines identity for it provides the crucial “links” that makeup
contiguity. Let us consider Sherlock Holmes. Suppose Holmes at age 95 opens up a photo album containing
pictures from his childhood to the present. He points out his 10th birthday party, high school graduation, college
friends, first detective case, etc. We can say that the photo album, containing numerous time-slices of Holmes, all
comprise numerically one and the same individual because each photo is connected, psychologically to the
“whole” psyche and psychological makeup of Holmes. Each photo depicts a point on the timeline, which recalls
memories, feelings, attitudes, and mental postures appropriate to the episode in the photo. Moreover, the photo
itself is part and partial of Holmes entire psychological history (–of which he is aware and in fimm possession of –).
When he looks over his photo album, pointing to different time periods—his 10 birthday party, his first big case,
his finding the jewels, his retirement party, etc.—he is remembering different episodes in his life. He is
psychologically connected (–primarily through memory–) to those different periods; his consciousness flows
contiguously over time to the present moment.
He is psychologically “continuous” with /”contiguous” with /”connected” by the memories that compose his
psychological history. What makes an agent numerically one and the same distinct individual is the fact that the
agent has a consciousness that flows from the past to the present, which in turn flows contiguously into the future.
The psychological distinctness of each agent pertains to the unique psychological history of each individual.
Let us consider Angelica Smith, an eye-doctor. At age 75, Dr. Smith looks back upon her life:
(High School Graduation)
(Top eye Doctor)
(House in Florida) (Fresent Day)
Consider the timeline above. At 11 Angelica has fun at her fifteenth B-day party; at T2 she recalls her graduating
High School, at Ts she remembers the stress of medical school, at T she remembers being considered the top
eye doctor by other professionals; at Ts she recalls retiring, and at T she enjoys moving to Florida and basking in
the sun. From the vantage point of the present, T7, Dr. Smith remembers it all and tells the story of her life to her
grandchildren. It is all her, Dr. Angelica Smith. The timeline represents exactly one person, numerically one
person (–Dr. Angelica Smith–). Her identity does not consist in her possessing Descartes inexplicable “immaterial
substance;”nor in her having the same genetic-stuff over time. Rather, her identity arises out of her psychology,
which is connected (primarily) by memory, over time, to the present moment.
For a Lockean style theorist, it is crucial to spell out, as explicitly as possible, the term “Connectedness.” This is a
point of dispute. What is meant by Connectedness? How “strong do the connections have to be in order for an
agent to maintain a distinct identity and numerical sameness over time? Lockean style theorists unanimously
agree that connectedness” must pertain to memory. In our examples, Holmes and Smith “remember” (in various
ways) everything in the timeline, telling each event. While a Lockean-style theory of personal identity is strongly
favored by many, it too face conceptual and intuitive problems when considering highly abstract counter-
examples. For the moment, let us consider this theory as philosophically defensible and philosophically preferred.
Immorality and Personal Identity
Some who argue that artificially extended life or immortality would be a bad claim that the person would lose her
identity as a person; or, at least, would cease to be numerically one and the same person over time. Recall our
initial quandary: Suppose Jones was offered artificially long life. Such life extension would only be “desirable or
“good” for Jones if Jones remained the exact same person. If life extension obliterated Jones’ identity as Jones,
then that would surely be a bad thing for Jones. By accepting life extension Jones is not requesting death (–1.e.,
the status of being dead–). Hence it must be Jones” life that is extended. Jones would only accept the “gift” of
long life (or immortality) if Jones knew that she would not (metaphysically speaking) become a different person or
go out of existence.
While this is a persistent objection to long life or immortality, it is not obvious why anyone should think that long
life or immortality would render the person conceptually indeterminate and lacking any determinate conceptual
content. In other words, it is not at all obvious why the person would be rendered bereft of a unique personal
identity. Let us consider artificially extended long life. Let us also suppose that a Lockean-style theory of personal
identity is true (or plausible). Were Jones to receive artificially extended long life, it would seem reasonable to
believe that Jones’ personal identity would be enhanced and further particularized. That is, Jones would be
definitively conceptually determinate. Whatever projects, goals, beliefs, relationships, commitments, duties, etc.
that Jones had before artificially extended long life would be amplified substantially by living longer. Jones would
undertake more projects (–perhaps richer and more challenging projects), foster more relationships (–perhaps
deeper relationships and definitely more relationships–), envision more goals (–perhaps more substantial goals–
), and so on. In respect to immortality, we can further envision such amplifications and substantiality magnified
indefinitely. The longer the life, the richer the conceptual content. As long as Jones is psychologically contiguous
with herself before the artificial life extension process, she would retain her (numerical) identity as Jones.
Immortality and Agonizing Boredom
Another common complaint against artificially long life and immortality is that limited lifespans and “finitude” gives
life poignancy, emotional involvement, meaning, and focus. Such essential characteristics would be lost on a life
that lasts 6,000 years or is immortal). The idea, here is that the brevity of our lives is what motivates us to focus
upon various goals, projects, relationships, and duties. Extending our lives much longer than is currently “normal”
would render us emotionally inert and without interest. It would, allegedly, render our world and experiences dull,
unsubstantive, and lacking in radiance, beauty, and luster.
This complaint is intricately bound up with another complaint-perhaps the most pervasive of all objections to
long live and / or immortality, namely, that an artificially extended long life (or immortality) would lead to
particularly insidious types of boredom, monotony, tedium, and ennui, which would further manifest itself as
complete and total apathetic indifference at best, and probably an agonizing hatred of life. After a while, there
would be nothing left to do, nothing left to experience, nothing new to say or think, etc. It would be an
immiserating repetition that would “cry out for the “sweet release” of death.
While such complaints are commonplace and pervasive for both artificially extended long life as well as true
immortality, it is unclear why such pessimism is rationally justified or that any evidence exists to warrant such
extreme negativity. One might reply to such complaints by suggesting that (1) such claims are completely
unjustified in respect to long life and, (2), very unlikely to be true (as formulated and as presented) of immortality.
Such pessimism exposes and expresses) a serious lack of imagination, curiosity, wonder, and reverence for life
and lived experience. Let us begin with debunking such claims in respect to artificially extended long life.
In respect to artificially long life, such pessimistic views seem outright suspect if not false on their face, at least to
an intelligent educated adult audience. Consider the following: Would it really have been “monotonously boring” to
have lived through, witnessed, and been a part of (for example) the marvelous of ancient Egypt, the mysteries of
Mycenaean Crete or Greece, the Roman Republic (and Empire) in all its grandiosity, the city of Constantinople in
its prime, and a myriad of other glorious civilizations, cultures, and epochs throughout the ages? This hardly
seems likely. Yet, if one had a lifespan of 6,000 years one could have lived through each and every era
mentioned and much more. One could have studied at the great library in Alexandrea and traveled the Silk Road
to China. Each and every generation has its wonders; to be bored in any era would be a shame and waste. A
sufficiently boring person could be bored in any era, but this is not a necessary consequence of long life. A short
life could be lived boringly. A long life could be lived boringly. However, it need not be so. There is not a
necessary connection (or necessary causal relation) between boredom and long life.
Long life would afford an agent a seemingly endless and vast array of possibilities and opportunities. While the
daily grind of working to provide food for one’s self and family, as well as other basic necessities probably stifles
one’s willingness, desire, and ability to engage in artistic and scientific accomplishments—artificially extended life
(or immortality) would open the door to such possibilities if one has an adventurous outlook. Living for 6,000 years
would be more than sufficient time to envision projects and see them to fruition. Ideally, this would be true in a
fashion that is almost inconceivable. One would have a vast amount of time to study cultures, languages, texts,
science, math, and so on in a way that would truly enable one to become fully yoked in, immersed in the life-
blood and essence of the subject at hand. Imagine not only studying each and every Shakespeare play, but
seeing them all as live performance directed by Shakespeare himself.
The key idea here is that it would be rash to imagine one’s long live as a curse of monotony rather than a grand
adventure that is only barely imaginable to a being that typically lives only 80 years. The possibilities of endless
adventure, devising and bringing about grand accomplishments, goals, and projects should not be overlooked.
The poignancy and passion that one could imbue into life would be limited only by one’s “pre-existing passion
and interest in life. There isn’t a necessary connection between long life and monotony, boredom, and ennui.
Immortality faces several challenges that are not an issue for medically induced artificially long life. Someone
whose life is lengthened by 6,000 years is not, as previously discussed, immune to death or invulnerable. The
person could be killed in innumerable ways. The agent’s fundamental relationship to the cosmos at large is not
altered or changed. But this would not be true of one who is truly immortal.
To be immortal, as defined earlier, is to be immune to death as such, immune to decay and corruption, immune
from injury, etc. On a small scale, everything thus far said about long life would be true of an immortal life. But an
immortal life would face serious long-term challenges. For one thing, if an extinction event occurred (which is
highly likely) at any time, all human beings would die. This would make the immortal person utterly alone in the
world. Extraordinarily long periods of being completely alone might in fact rob life of its poignancy, beauty, dazzle,
and marvel. If other immortals exist, this would probably not be true. One’s “circle of associates would be much
smaller of course. Many philosophers, for a variety of reasons, believe that one would only desire long life if one
had the company of at least one other person (–perhaps more than one other person–).
Another very real problem for a true immortal would be dealing with the inevitable planetary destruction of earth. It
is a fact that in about a billion years our sun will become extraordinarily hot, obliterating everything on earth,
leaving our plant a cinder. In roughly five billion years our planet will be engulfed by our sun as it becomes a red
giant. The earth will literally be nonexistent. What would an immortal do if space travel is not developed? The
immortal would literally float for an eternity in the vacuum of empty space. This would be highly, highly,
undesirable. In such circumstances, one could image the immortal begging for death.
Suppose the immortal (or immortals) mastered space travel. In this scenario, the fun and adventure would
continue for many billions of years, perhaps settling many cosmological questions about other life in the universe,
and the true nature of other planets throughout our galaxy and beyond. This would all be fascinating and in synch
with the endless adventure conception of long life. However, all current science suggests that the universe itself
will come to an end. The exact way in which our universe will die is somewhat disputed, but the most accepted
theory is that in about a trillion years the universe will die in a deep freeze.” If this is true and happens, there will
be nothing but darkness and emptiness everywhere. Living forever in a deep freeze excludes any further”
adventure. Being stuck in such a horrible scenario would be far worse than death. It is possible, however, that our
best science has things wrong, at least in respect to the end of the cosmos itself. However, before really
accepting immorality, it would be a good idea to make sure that it would be “worth it” in the long run. Since
immortality and the infinite cosmos are ultimately related on a large scale, it would be prudent to wait for science
to become immensely more accurate before accepting genuine, true, immortality. Otherwise one may end up
suffering endlessly in the vacuum of space or in a stagnant deep freeze.