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Why I Want to Die

No, I don’t want to die right now. For all its problems, I genuinely love my life. Even if I live to be a hundred, I will probably want to live a hundred years more. But I do not want to live forever.

Some argue that death is not bad since we didn’t care about not being alive before we were born and we won’t be around to care after we die. This argument has been around for at least a couple thousand years, since Epicurus stated in his Letter to Menoeceus that “Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.”

However, I think Epicurus got it wrong. There are things we value very deeply that death would take away from us, whether it’s the ability to fall in love and get married, to be there when your child takes her first steps, to write that book you’ve always wanted to write, or simply to have one more day with the one you love. Death takes away things of great value, even if we won’t be there to mourn their loss.

We want to go on living because there are things we want to do, whether those goals are long term goals like becoming a nuclear physicist, or short term goals like going to see our son’s play. We have far more things we want to do then we have years to do them. Even if we live for one thousand years, there will still be things left that we want to do.

While I love life, I would not want eternal life, either on earth, or in heaven. I don’t think most people have really thought about what it would mean to live forever. It would mean that you would have time to accomplish every single goal that you’re capable of accomplishing. You could be a conductor, a teacher, and a marine biologist. You could hike every mountain and sing every conceivable song. But you might also lose motivation to accomplish your long term goals. Why put in the hard work to become a brain surgeon if you could always put it off until tomorrow? But regardless of how motivated you are to accomplish your goals, there will come a point at which you will have accomplished every goal you really wanted to accomplish. You will have nothing left that will make life worth living.

Even if we were in a realm where we could do anything, from walking through walls to talking to George Washington, there are only a finite number of possible things a finite mind can experience in one minute. There is only so much sensory data we can take in, and only so many ways that our neurons can fire. Since there are only a finite number of one minute experiences, there would only be a finite number of billion minute experiences too (just like how there are finite digits and also finite billion-digit numbers). We could even do every possible googolplex year experience a googolplex times.

However there are some things we want to do again and again. Just because I achieve my goal of eating a delicious pizza doesn’t mean I would never want to eat an identical pizza in the future. Even if I do everything I could possibly do, I would still want to redo some of it. But eventually, the pleasure would diminish. I don’t think sex with Brad Pitt would be as much fun if you’ve already done it a googolplex times.

At some point, there would be nothing new to accomplish or experience, and all I could do is relive past experiences. It may be fun for a while, but I think eventually I would find it unfulfilling.

But maybe we’re not in a heavenly realm where we can do anything, and there are barriers preventing us from achieving all our goals right away. Let’s say that I was only able to achieve one new goal every billion years. Since there are finite goals, there would still come a point where I achieved all my goals, and then a point where I had achieved all my goals a googolplex times.

One way to avoid the problem of getting tired of things would be if I kept forgetting what I did in the past. I could then do exactly the same series of things over and over again without ever getting bored. However, I don't see why living an identical life over and over again is necessarily more valuable than living that life once.  Either way I end up achieving and enjoying exactly the same things. I also think that my memories are such an important part of what makes ‘me’ ‘me’, that if you took them all away, it may no longer be ‘me’ that is living forever.

Another way around the problem would be if my brain was changed so that I behaved differently. Maybe the brains of pigs (or some other animal) are set up so they would enjoy eternal life. If so, my brain could be gradually changed until it was identical to that of a pig. "I" would then enjoy eternal life.

I’ve thought a lot about it, and I can’t think of any type of immortality worth wanting. Not only would eternal life be endlessly repetitive, it would deprive life of its value. It is because life is finite that every moment of my life is precious. I will do some amazing things in my life, but there will be other things that I will never get to do. What I get to do will be based on the choices I make and the work I do. I will not have infinite time to try again, and that makes my life’s successes so much sweeter. My choices matter. Every minute matters. That is why I love life, and why I want to die.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...
July 23, 2010 at 6:31 AM  

It's conceivable that there are infinite number of possible goals to accomplish and if we had the ability, over the course of this infinite life, you could slowly modify yourself to be compatible with each of those goals, while still maintaining enough of a connection with your most recent past (which could be hundreds or thousands of years) that you'd not feel enough not like yourself to warrant claiming you are a different person. And you wouldn't ever have to repeat anything. Hence, unending new fulfillment may be possible and desirable.


Inquiring Infidel said...
July 23, 2010 at 8:02 AM  


I agree that someone could have an infinite number of possible goals; for example, I could have a goal to count to 1, a goal to count to 2, a goal to count to 3, etc. However, as I explained in my post, I think that there are only finitely many possible goals that would take less than a googolplex years to achieve. It’s possible to come up with goals that would take longer to complete, such as counting to a googolplex googolplex, but I don’t think any of those goals would be desirable.

It’s certainly possible that I, or a more powerful entity, could modify my brain so that my desires became totally different. This is what I was trying to get at with my pig example. If my brain was slowly changed so that it eventually became a pig brain over the course of a googolplex years, my brain would always be similar to what it was in the recent past. However, I would not see this as ‘me’ living forever, and I would not desire it. Perhaps my brain could also be modified so that I enjoyed spending all of eternity counting up from 1, but if my desires were changed so radically, I would no longer say that it is ‘me’ that is living forever.

There’s one possibility I noticed after writing the post that I should have addressed. Let’s say you have a goal that will take one hour to accomplish. It’s possible that a very powerful being might let you accomplish half of it in one decade, one quarter of it in the next decade, etc. That way, you would always still be working towards the goal. One problem with this is that when it got to the point where you were only spending an infinitesimal amount of time working towards the goal and bored for the rest of the time, you would no longer find such a life fulfilling. Another problem is that at some point, the interval during which you would be working towards that goal would be too short for you to be aware of it. At that point, it would be just like not working towards a goal.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...
July 23, 2010 at 8:25 AM  

I thought I was modifying your pig example to be more compatible with what we would like to retain about our individuality. I'm not sure why you disagree. There are possibly an infinite number of ways to be as a satisfied human being. It seems to me you could transition between them all over an infinite amount of time. And at any given moment you would still be vastly compatible with who you thought you were over time. And along the way you'd always be creating a coherent identity that worked out well at the time.

You are making the argument that eventually you would no longer be the original you (since we are slowly replacing each plank in the metaphorical ship of your self), but I'm not sure it would matter. You wouldn't be complaining since by definition we've established you would enjoy what you were doing at the time.

Thousands of years of continuity of self would seem good enough. You'd always feel more than connected enough with a personal past, and there'd always be reason to continue since you'd never notice a jarring difference, and you could always count on something new that you would in fact like. A completely new self that you couldn't identify with at all would be so far off that it wouldn't matter to you any more than the incompatible one you left behind eons ago. If "I" had to live forever, this is probably the option I'd pick.

Depending on how strictly you define "self" we aren't the same person we were at the time we were born to the time we die (and different decades in between where we may have vastly different opinions and feelings about things). We have to accept change as part of self. And I'm saying maybe we can extend that principle wide enough to maintain reasonable continuity and hence a desirable eternity. Basically just about the time you'd be bored with yourself, you're always just enough of a different person that it never takes its toll.

So perhaps we could say you are right that there may be no desirable eternity for a self, but perhaps instead a desirable eternal path? Or something like that.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...
July 23, 2010 at 8:32 AM  

Another interesting question to me is if it is possible to be eternally tortured. Would that become mentally impossible over enough time where your brain just has to entropy beyond what is coherent torment? Would a reset be torture of the same person? Would it matter to remember an eternal past of torment even though your feelings are reset over time?

Inquiring Infidel said...
July 23, 2010 at 8:57 AM  


I certainly think it’s possible for my desires to change and still say that they’re my desires. My point was that there are limits. If there came a point where I was desiring exactly what a pig desires, or what Hitler desired, or what you desire, it would no longer be ‘me’ that was living an eternal life. But even if it was, I would not want eternal life if the only possibility was to become a totally different person.

You say that there are an infinite number of ways to be a satisfied human being. I disagree, and I tried to explain why in my post. As finite beings with finite brains, there are only so many possible combinations of thoughts and experiences we can have in any given finite period of time. Even if we ignore the normal constraints of reality and I could do things like eat chocolate ice cream for 1/6 of a second, then walk on the beach for 1/3 of a second, then climb the last foot of Everest with a parrot on my shoulder for another 1/3 of a second, and then stop a jet in midair with my bare hands in the last 1/6 of a second, there are only so many combinations of things that could be done in a second. This set is unimaginably huge, but still finite. From this, it follows that there are only so many googolplex year experiences that we could have. Why do you think there could be infinitely many ways to be a satisfied human being?

WAR_ON_ERROR said...
July 27, 2010 at 12:51 AM  

So, do you think you are certain enough that any kind of eternal life is impossible to continue enjoying to turn this into an argument against religions that say there is such a thing? Or no?

And what do you think of the feasibility of eternal suffering?

Inquiring Infidel said...
July 27, 2010 at 11:25 PM  

I don't think it could be used to argue against religions that say we can enjoy eternal life after death because a lot of it is subjective. Christians could always argue that they wouldn't mind becoming a different person or argue that God has some mysterious way of making it all work.

Regarding eternal suffering, I really don't know. I'd guess that our minds could be changed just enough so that the suffering continued to feel just as bad as when it started.

I think it would be undesirable to have eternal life with our minds altered so that we could spend the rest of eternity doing one thing and never get bored. I would refuse that just like I would refuse the option of being hooked up to an experience machine ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Experience_Machine ). I would find a brain change that allowed either eternal pleasure or eternal suffering through doing the same thing for eternity to be undesirable. So eternal suffering could be possible through an undesirable change to our brains, and thus still seems possible. And this change would be small enough, that I think it would still be appropriate to call us the same person we were before.

Ignostic Morgan said...
August 1, 2010 at 11:32 AM  

I only wanted to know if there existed God from ten to sixteen. The idea of Hell irked me, and I discerned no reason to worship.
Google skeptic griggsy to see my new atheist,anti-theism!

kadir karabaş said...
February 22, 2013 at 10:07 PM  
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