Articles, Rants and Explorations
Current Jennilog for 7 / 21 / 2003: Explorations
THE CONCEPT OF IMMORTALITY
Eldenath, one of my spouses, has had a chronic headache, plus a scary list of symptoms, for several months running now, and so I am very worried much of the time for her, and because my panic-disorder driven brain is forever scanning for zebras in the middle of horse country (as it were), I cannot help but spend to much time imagining her problems are of the Very Worst Sort; the Terminal sort. I fear her loss, I fear her dying, and by extension, I fear my own death, for I am made of the same stuff as she. The fear is so great sometimes, that my mind conjures suicide as a way to cope with it; a bizarre contradiction, to so fear death as to run to it. But then, like many depressive and panic-disordered people, I think in passing a lot about such things.
I have always found it ironic, that for a person who has, in her 43 years, thought so often about suicide, is otherwise so incredibly opposed to death. I utterly loath death.
Of course I am afraid of it, that goes without saying; I am a meat golem, just as you are, and meat has been programmed by evolution to fight for life, and to innately fear destruction. Quite beyond that, philosophically, I find that death tends to rob meaning from existence, in that the bother of becoming anything at all, pretty much is wholly devalued by oblivion. The alternative to death, to mortality, is of course immortality, and immortality has possessed -indeed obsessed- human imagination pretty much from the word go. If one goes purely by observation, by physical senses and rational experience, death is annihilation. It is a game with no winning state, a total loss, a hopeless situation. The mind spins at facing this, perhaps even going insane to some degree, and from that horror of the abyss, in part, comes the invention of religion.
Even so, I have always found it very impressive that a meat-machine such as the human being, so mortal, so limited by instinct and genes and biochemistry -not to mention time- can conceive of such a thing as forever, much less wanting, needing to exist forever. That's pretty amazing for a pretentious ape with a knack for tools.
Ultimately, the basic wish is that the self, the human identity, the human consciousness could exist beyond the body, indeed forever. To not cease, ever, and also to still be YOU; a problem with reincarnation is that the self is lost in becoming a new person, plant or animal...in that case, can it be said that 'you' actually survived death at all? No, I would say the deepest wish for immortality is that the person remains, and they remain aware of being the same person they define as, when making the wish in the first place.
But what would it actually mean, actually be like, to be immortal? So many forms of media, from the entertainments of television to the entertainments of various Holy Books and religious texts make great fuss of exploring the idea, but I have yet to find anyone, or anything, that seems to truly have a grasp of it. Whether it is angsty immortal vampires whining about how no one can understand what it is like to live 300 years, to preachers proclaiming how fun immortality is going to be in some wonderful heaven, frankly, they all have not a clue, I think. Allow me to make my case; let's take it as red that immortality is possible and real, now what?
There are essentially two big problems with human immortality as a concept, and they are Humanity, and Memory. There are three kinds of immortal being: the Line Immortal, the Ray Immortal, and the Loop Immortal
The Line Immortal
A Line Immortal is defined as having always been, and as always being. That is to say, they have no origin, there was no point at which they began, for they always were. Such a being could literally remember forever, and indeed spend all of eternity doing nothing but remembering what they already did. The could spend a forward infinitude recalling an backward infinitude, such is the nature of infinities.
The line immortal always was, and always will be, so they can never end. If they ever found a way to end, they would not have ever been a perpetual line in infinite time, they would be a Ray, infinity backwards coming to a point, and end. Most gods are considered to be Line Immortals, it seems.
The Ray Immortal
A Ray Immortal is a being that extends in time infinitely in one direction, but has an origin point, before which they did not exist (or, as we have just seen, an infinite past that comes to an end point). Most Souls in a religious or mystical context seem to be described as Rays, they are Created by some being, or split off from some being, or otherwise come into being from nothingness, and from thence onward are immortal. A handful of gods are described thus as well. Such a being has a beginning, but no end, and as such, would feel the basic problems of Humanity and Memory most keenly.
The Loop Immortal
The Loop Immortal is only barely immortal, it is not a state that a human could truly consider any real form of eternal life, because it is a dead end of stasis. Whether caught in a loop of time that folds back on itself, or simply doomed to repeat the same set of actions, or the same moment, over and over and over, forever and ever, the Loop Immortal cannot change, cannot grow, and is for all intents, a cyclic machine. Most ghosts are described as being what amounts to Loop Immortals.
Humanity and Memory: The Bugaboos Of Immortality
If you should find yourself to be immortal, you will quickly discover an interesting problem:
You cannot remain human so long as you can remember and not forget,
and you cannot know eternity so long as you are capable of forgetting anything.
To understand this, first let's take a look at really deep time.
William Shakespeare, the famous playwright, died hundreds of years ago, from the time of this writing, and to most people, that is a long time dead. Centuries dead. Yet from the point of eternity, of deep time, it is nothing, less than the blink of the eye. Indeed, from the perspective of true immortality, the dinosaurs have just barely stopped breathing, they died just a blink ago themselves. Sun ignited from a dark cloud of collapsing gas just that same blink ago as well, and for that matter, the origin of the entire universe, over 12 billion years ago happened that same eyeblink backwards in time. In infinity, any arbitrary stretch of time, any conceivable stretch of time, from a second to a googolplex of eons is the same, is nothing, is but a blink. Eternity is bandied about by authors and preachers and such, but the sheer scale of it is literally unimaginable. Unimaginable, at least, so long as one is even vaguely human-like.
Infinity is a concept the human mind can, at best, define as a variable, a quantity without any real meaning. We can say 'goes on forever', but that is nothing more than giving a label to an undefined thing. To know infinity, to know eternity, one would have to experience it, and that means being able to remember it as it passes.
Existence is memory. Without memory, there is no being. Awareness comes from comparison and contrast, even for an animal that 'lives in the moment', there is still memory, the memory of what can be eaten and what cannot, what is liked and what is disliked, all the elements that define a unique personality -and personality, self, identity, is the very thing the hope of immortality is there to preserve! No memory, no awareness, no awareness, no existence. To be immortal, one must exist, and thus one must have some memory with which to compare and contrast with.
What would happen, if one were a Ray, that is to say one had a beginning, but no end, and could accumulate memory infinitely?
The result would be a human that would, as time progressed, gain more and more permanent memories, and with these memories, a deeper and deeper sense of time. Just as a year is a long time to the young child, and nothing to the old man, so it logically would be that a century would, to the immortal, quickly become like a day, and also thus with the millennium, the eon, and so on. The more time, and experience that passed, the less meaningful any given division of time would be. To the immortal several million years old, any human concept of time would be lost. It would be nothing, if such an immortal, say, wanted to taste an apple pie, to take a seed, stand by and wait to grow an orchard of 150 year old trees, and then make the pie. It would be as nothing. To avoid a walk up to the top of a mountain, it would be nothing to wait for a civilization to arise from a nomadic tribe, develop agriculture, invent internal combustion engines, and manufacture helicopters, before bothering to make the trip. A mere 10,000 years that, a trifle. Such a being, filled with every experience imaginable, and even more beyond imagination, could hardly be called human any longer. To accommodate a million year memory, the mind would need to keep step merely to make sense of all of the information, so such a being would be to us as we are to a bacteria. Who could fathom such a mind? They would no longer be anything resembling human. They would be inhuman.
What of the immortal person who can forget, then?
Such a being becomes a Time Worm. That is the price of remaining human-like. Imagine a worm that eats its way through a vast apple of block time. The head eats forward, into the future, and the tail excretes the dung of lost memories, into the past. The worm itself, is the entire body of memories and experiences of the immortal person. They have a present, which is ever learning and seeing and experiencing, and they have a past. But the distant past becomes hazy, as they begin to forget things. At some point, the past is lost absolutely, as it is completely forgotten. Thus, such an immortal, a Time Worm immortal, can remain human-like because they never grow beyond the limits of being human-like, yet they also continue to experience and do, and act. Or do they?
In point of fact, for a human-like creature, there is only a set, a finite, number of possible experiences. So long as one is within the rough definition of being more or less human, then there are only so many possible actions, so many possible arrangements of actions, so many possible experiences to be had. This means that if one could remember perfectly, one would eventually come to a point where there was literally nothing more new that was possible to do in whatever combination or arrangement. The human mind and form are finite, thus the possibilities are finite. To have nothing new, would be to some, a form of hell. The only way out is to find a way to stop being human and become something Other.
If one forgot things, if one was a Time Worm, then one is inevitably doomed to become a Loop Immortal. A static loop need not be small, it could be vast, and if one can forget at all, then inevitably, one would fall into repeating things imagining them as new, as being experienced for the first time. One would never know that one was repeating. Conceptually, it would be no different, in terms of eternity, as being frozen, in stasis, in a single moment, in a tight time loop. Repeating is repeating, and any arbitrary length of time in infinity is equivalent.
So it is that if one wants immortality, one can be human, or human-like, and end up in a static, dead end loop, or one can face having to become inhuman in some form or another, basically becoming something so alien that it would be difficult to conceive of. If immortality is being yourself, forever, then you are in a bit of a bind, unless your concept of self is not dependent on anything at all. If you remain one person, you are doomed to a ghostly time loop, and if you opt to evolve, nothing of the person who once desired immortality would exist forever, because you would be ever-changing -and not just in a child-to-adult way, in a total, unimaginable set of ways, over infinite time.
Heavens and Hells
Sitting on a cloud, playing a harp, singing with the angels? You would be bored to tears within a decade, much less an eon. How about the sum total of all earthly delights? A world of all possible imaginable experiences? Everything a human mind can imagine is a finite set, because a human mind, plus all the experiences possible for it, are a finite set. Thus you would be bored to tears within a few millennia, much less that same eon. Heaven sucks. Hell is the same problem: sooner or later one runs out of torments, and it all becomes bland and the same. The human mind is wired with the function to ignore any input that is repeated too often, even torment would at some time, become nothing but background noise. Hell, eventually, would cease to be hellish. Both the classic Heaven and the classic Hell, end up the same: a grey, endless expanse of boredom.
So, what if one could forever evolve? Past the level of being a god, on into really odd, strange, unimaginable things? The question then is one of whether one is still....oneself? How different can a being become, and still be recognizable as a 'self' at all? What exactly is it that one is trying to preserve with dreams of immortality? Ego? Identity? Mind? With unlimited change (the only solution to the problem of looping stasis in eternity), even these concepts would be lost, expanded beyond. In such a case, is the original person even still extant? If not, then...is it really immortality after all?
Not That We Will Likely Find Out
Frankly, from a rational standpoint, none of this matters, since immortality is a ridiculous wish, patently, our meat bodies die and that, as they say, is it. However, on the off chance that something truly amazing awaits us, that we really do have something not entirely unlike a soul, an eternal self that cannot be destroyed, then we will find ourselves having to cope with what eternity actually means. To endure immortality, a person will inevitably have to face the problem of the limits of identity. Eternity is utterly alien to the human mind, yet is so desired, and seems so natural and proper to the ego. Yet it seems that the ego would, in time, be lost if a growing immortality was gained, and end up being as good as dead if a static loop immortality was fated.
It seems, then, that the very thing our heart desires to preserve, would be lost either way, in time. So even if immortality, as many a dreamer and many a religion loves to play with, were to exist in some form, is it even then, really, immortality?
Website Contents, including all characters,
images, artwork, text, and any other contents are
Copyright © 2000 by Jennifer Diane Reitz
All Rights Reserved Worldwide