Mortality Doesn't Make Us Free Either

Mortality Doesn't Make Us Free Either Artwork by Nora Grant

In 2005, Aubrey de Grey – a long-haired, long-bearded, Methuselah-looking scientist with a PhD from Cambridge – gave a TED talk called “A roadmap to end aging” that turned into a cult hit. By 2010, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jonathan Weiner had turned his eye on this research and published an intriguing and seductive book called Long for this World: The Strange Science of Immortality. It’s now less than a decade later, and hedge fund managers and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have thrown huge amounts of money at this research. Sergey Young created a $100 million Longevity Vision Fund. Google partners have invested over $2.5 billion in an anti-aging joint venture. Mark Zuckerberg recently donated $3 billion to wipe out all disease by the end of the century. And Bank of America predicts the longevity industry could be worth at least $600 billion by 2025. ​ While scientists and the moneyed elites are racing ahead with this project, philosophers have been reluctant to support it, to say the least. Simone De Beauvoir, for example, published her novel All Men are Mortal in 1946, which portrayed one such immortal man as living a terribly cursed existence. Bernard Williams wrote a much briefer essay along the same vein in 1973 called “The Makropulos case: reflections on the tedium of immortality.” Now, it would appear that Martin Hägglund has joined this chorus of sceptics with a new book titled This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free. ​ Rather than taking on the specific quest for bodily immortality, however, Hägglund is considering the much larger notions of being and time in general. In this sense, This Life can be seen as an extension of the project that Hägglund began in his 2012 book Dying for Time. In that work, Hägglund – a professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities at Yale University – examined literary works by Proust, Woolf, and Nabokov to show that these writers do not just fear death and the severe effects of aging, they fear the ending of any cherished moment or sensation altogether. According to Hägglund, these and many other authors long to linger in particular moments or sensations in order to cherish them. They see that we may in fact be condemned to a temporal existence, but they long to be timeless anyway, and to become so using the written word. Hägglund, however, argued that this desire for an eternal state of being is actually incompatible with the desire to slow time down, and this would be revealed if it were ever to reach its logical conclusion. He noted that if one were ever able to become eternal and remove all exposure to the possibility of loss, then all of the value and intensity of these cherished experiences would be completely removed. ​ In This Life, Hägglund continues to explore this theme in much more detail. Lacking, of course, any real-world examples of timelessness, Hägglund trains his eye on the concepts of immortality held by various religions. This includes, for example, the Christian view of an eternal heaven, as well as the timeless nirvana of Buddhism. These are the kinds of immortality that are certain, unending, and unchanging. Echoing his earlier work, Hägglund says that whether or not such immortality is attainable is beside the point; it is simply undesirable. He claims that if you remove the possibility of death, you also remove the life. If you take away the possibility of grief, you take away joy. We care for things that are fragile and finite—the opposite, we do not. Any desire for immortality, therefore, is ultimately senseless because all desire would be removed in such a state. We need death, Hägglund claims, in order to have what he calls spiritual freedom, and hence the subtitle of his book.

Hägglund is persuasive in this analysis of the unquestioned immortality of religions, but that does not mean the opposite holds true. Unquestioned mortality does not lead to freedom either. For one thing, the end state of personal death leaves one in a state with zero degrees of freedom (as far as we know). But the knowledge that such will be one’s fate sucks the meaning out of any activity along the way too. This is the resignation of the nihilist who asks, “What’s the point?”

The philosopher John Messerly, in his excellent book The Meaning of Life, explored why the extension of this nihilism to society as a whole is problematic too. Messerly notes that it seems impossible to find meaning in the actions of our lives when we consider the likely endpoints for our universe. At one end, we have the Big Freeze, where continued expansion of the universe would lead to a temperature near absolute zero where no matter could ever come together to form life. In the other direction, a Big Crunch might occur where the universe contracts back towards the super-hot lifeless state near the Big Bang. Either of these cosmological consequences result in what Messerly calls Universal Death, which seems to render all of the preceding actions of life as utterly pointless.

We don’t need such far off and vastly remote consequences to see these effects of mortality, however. The lack of freedom that comes from a known endpoint has been shown both mathematically and experimentally in modern game theory too. In this field of research, so called prisoner’s dilemmas can easily be modelled that lock participants into a bad choice. Their path is chosen for them. Such dilemmas can be overcome, however, if participants are given the chance to repeat their choices indefinitely. These iterated prisoner’s dilemmas use what is called the “shadow of the future” to encourage cooperation among participants and root out cheaters and defectors, much like in the ongoing concerns of any society of beings. The flip side of this freedom to choose to cooperate, however, occurs whenever the game is known to be coming to an end. In experiment after experiment, when people involved in iterated prisoner’s dilemma games can tell that the clock is just about up, their cooperation collapses. Their choice – in other words, their freedom – disappears when the mortality of the game becomes certain. These participants become prisoners once again.

Hägglund seems to see this implicitly, if he doesn’t quite say so explicitly. He ends This Life with an examination of Martin Luther King Jr., claiming King’s actions and words displayed a secular faith that his own dangerous path would pay off for someone, someday, who would be around to reach “the promised land” that King envisioned. Hägglund thinks King’s mortal actions were admirable, not because they were aimed at heaven, but because they were aimed at those who would live on after him. Crucially, however, this does require that a society continues on. Life in general must continue in order for King’s actions to have any meaning. As Hägglund did say in an op-ed in the New York Times, “An eternal activity—just as much as an eternal rest—is of concern to no one.” So, it’s not the conclusion of mortality that drives our actions; it is only the threat of mortality to life. If there is any hope for the kind of spiritual freedom that Hägglund longs for, it could only be in the epistemological uncertainty that exists between certain mortality and certain immortality. The problem, however, is that this realisation also binds our actions.

When we see that universal death is a state with no freedom in the moment, no hope for freedom in the future, and a removal of all meaning from the past, then such a state becomes the worst possible outcome that we must struggle to avoid. From this, we obtain a bit of freedom to try to survive, but scientific discoveries about the requirements for the survival of life restrict such freedom to only the trials and errors of acts whose long-term consequences we are uncertain about. Fortunately, for Hägglund’s spiritual freedom, there is still quite a lot of uncertainty in which to explore, but progress is made every day that closes off options (e.g. to pollute, to destroy habitat, to risk social upheaval, etc.) whenever knowledge of their destructive consequences becomes clear. Longing for freedom beyond that, let alone prioritising it in one’s political ideology, is merely the fantasy of a mind that is unwilling to face up to the responsibilities that living requires. In the New Yorker’s review of This Life, the critic James Woods states, Hägglund’s “fundamental secular cry seems right: since time is all we have, we must measure its preciousness in units of freedom. Nothing else will do.” But clearly, survival is more fundamental than freedom. For without life, there is nothing to be free.

It turns out, we are not condemned to be free as Sartre thought. At most, we have the illusion of freedom in our moment-to-moment actions in the short term. But we are not free at all in the long run. Neither in death, nor in a religious afterlife, nor in the struggle to continue life. This is a position that reason can lead us to. And as Kant said, “Reason itself does not work instinctively, but requires trial, practice, and instruction in order to gradually progress from one level of insight to another. Therefore, a single man would have to live excessively long in order to learn to make full use of all his natural capacities.” And that brings us back to the efforts of billionaires to halt the aging process and begin living indefinitely long lives. Such a life could not realistically be the meaningless immortality that Hägglund argues against. A comet may destroy our habitat. The sun will explode at some point. We still don’t know the ultimate fate of the universe. But the longer we can personally live, the longer and wiser our outlooks can become. The more iterations we can expect, the more cooperative we will be with our choices, which is exactly the kind of shift in consciousness that sages have been asking of us for millennia. And so, it’s high time that philosophers weighed in on this kind of living, rather than sitting back and saying mortality is what we need. The technology to fight this mortality will race ahead regardless. But even if it does succeed, the passing of time will still continue, and our cherished events will still be imbued with value and intensity because they themselves will die away as they fade into the past. We, however, would be able to both anticipate, and linger, over many, many more of them. And that’s as much freedom as one can seemingly hope for.

Ed Gibney is a writer and philosopher whose work can be found at He is currently working to publish a novel about what it would take to live a life without aging.