A slice of
by Guido Eekhaut
This excerpt is a rewritten part of
his book Op het Lijf Geschreven; het Lichaam als Private Obsessie
(Written on the flesh; the body as private obsession) published
by Pelckmans in Belgium in the spring of 2003. Original Language:
Immortality is an unbearable paradox. It implies
that we can live forever in a world where everything else is finite
and limited. This will never work out well, since immortality assumes
the non-existence of a final point and is in contradiction with the
This was already problematic for Pascal: we know
that the infinite exists, he wrote, but we do not know how it presents
itself, because it has no boundaries, like the ones we experience in
our day-to-day relation to reality.
Immortality, in the full meaning of the word, seems
an impossible quality. At the most we can work with limits. The
civilization of mankind goes back for no more than some ten-thousands
of years. We ourselves are but a mere step in the biological and
historical evolution of that civilization, and not the culmination of
it. We cannot predict what man and his civilization will be like in –
let us say – another ten-thousand years. We can only make very broad
Even then we can rule out a workable form of
immortality. All matter is finite. A mouse, a stone, an elephant, the
sun and the planets, all have shorter or longer life-spans. But they
do not exist infinitely. Even the universe will most probably come to
an end. How, then, would we even dare to dream about living forever?
A possibility, however, would be an artificial
lengthening of our lifespan. I am disinclined to use the word
natural lifespan in this context, since we have already extended
it far beyond what nature intended, thanks to technology and science.
Recently my wife read somewhere that scientist will make a lifespan of
one hundred and fifty years a reality, maybe even in our lifetime. I
hope they will at the same time improve our physical condition. I have
arrived at only a third of that time and feel already much less fit
than thirty years ago.
But to extend our lives with fifty
years, a hundred years perhaps, is a serious challenge to nature. Some
time ago we learned we are the slaves of our genes. These genes direct
us, and the only thing they want to do is propagate. They need living
creatures like us to do that, and as long as we propagate, we make
sure that our genes continue to exist. That way these genes are
scientifically much more advanced than we are: they have, in a sense,
attained immortality. Indeed, genes have lived on in our ancestors for
thousands of years.
Our genes regulate our reproduction.
They make sure that we get attracted to a partner that ensures the
greatest chances for healthy descendants. Once the question of
descendants taken care of, we become superfluous to our genes. This
explains why our ancestors had a much shorter lifespan then we. At the
age of twenty or so they had served their use as far as the genes were
concerned. Since people procreate mainly in their teens and twenties,
and their children can make it on their own a decade later, there is
no good reason for keeping parents around once they get older. That’s
nature for you.
We have, however, build a civilisation
that had superseded the strict needs of the genes. We do procreate,
but to us it has become more than a main goal in life. We are not
willing to step aside after the kids grow up. Thanks to science, we
are able to live longer, much longer, than genetically necessary.
But can our body keep up with living so
long? More and more we see diseases arise that did not exists in the
past. Take Alzheimer. A typical disease for
the old body. It’s nice to look forward to
living a hundred and fifty, but not confined to a hospital bed for the
last fifty years.
Of course we do not want to die. At least not as
long as we feel healthy, as long as we have a viable future in front
of us. But man has always known he would die, and from that
realisation on he has been inclined to outwit death. Hence the many
stories of magic, alchemy, myth and superstition, the elixir of life,
all with the intention of fooling that old enemy and living forever.
There have also been people who have defied death,
looked it in the eye, unafraid. Their way of handling death reflected
the way they handled life: accepting its consequences to the limit.
Life however has a few tricks up its sleeve, and punishes those who
love it too much. The more intense and filled this life is, the more
senseless death seems. The ancient Chinese had this curse: may you
live in interesting times.
We must ask ourselves what purpose is
served by a life when it is extended over a century or more, even
several centuries. My feeling is that mankind is far from ready for
such an adventure. Even more: it is not suited for it, mostly on
account of its physical deterioration. It would not bother me to reach
two hundred years. That would give me time to read the five thousand
books in my library. But by the time I’m halfway, I would probably no
longer be able to read, let alone understand what I’m reading.
I wouldn’t mind celebrating my bicentennial, but in
the unchanging body of a thirty-year-old.
Even then I’m not really sure if our mind would not
freak out on account of sheer boredom. Life may be infinite, but
experiences are not. Not physical deterioration may prove to be our
worse enemy, but boredom.
There are other forms of immortality than the
assuring the continuation of body and/or mind. Artists have made claim
to their own kind of immortality, and who-ever has seen Michelangelo’s
David in Florence, or any such timeless work of art,
understands the essence of this sort of immortality. Philosophers
argue also that immortality is the hallmark of the moral judgement of
man, a matter of moral benevolence that people so to speak project as
a shadow in front of them, into the future. That shadow does not
disappear immediately after death, but evaporates slowly, and even
more slowly the higher the moral standing of the individual.
Such a morality does come neither
easily nor naturally to man. He happens to be the victim and slave of
his bodily passions and desires, which inherently accompany his
material state. He lives in what the Brahmin call the ‘evil dream of
Brahma’: our material and immoral world. His soul, that is an entirely
different matter: untouchable and eternally pure, some presume, or
spoiled by the original sin but not necessarily for ever damned. Some
cultures believe that the whole world and all of nature is possessed
by the spiritual world and that our soul may be transported into other
entities: into other people in the first place, but also into animals,
the moon, the river, plants, rocks. There is a form of eternal life in
all these beliefs.
The first men, so Lucretius tells us,
found life sweet and agreeable. They parted with it only after much
hesitation. Love for life, so the philosopher tells us, is common
among all living creatures. The Gods on the other hand may reflect
upon the universe without being vulnerable or mortal. They can explore
the universe without fear that their place in the it would be
questioned or threatened. Their age is undefined, their lifespan
unlimited. Men, on the contrary, enjoys but a short lifespan.
Epicurus wanted to address the false
pretences concerning death. Fear for death could not be allowed to
cloud the sense of life, so he wrote. The consequences of this fear
are probably more damaging than death itself. Philosophy may soften
that fear – not by analysing it but by putting it into perspective.
The finality of death is commonly experienced as the Great Evil, an
evil that has neither name not face as it is terrifyingly definite and
utterly senseless. This Great Evil results in a large number of
diseases of the mind, because no man can stand the wide chasm that to
us is eternity.
If one wants to escape the truth about
death, one is destined to destroy oneself, because the life is only
complete in death. Unfortunately it is religion that complicates our
relation to death, because religion makes us doubt about the finality
of death and about the level of morality needed to attain an existence
after this life. An atheist knows that life ends there, and in that
nothingness he recognizes the nothingness that preceded his life. The
blind terror we experience when confronted with death is mainly a
result of religion – but not of all religions.
Why then does man accept religion, when
it not only offers him consolation but also terror? Because it is
exactly this religion which tells him the impossible becomes possible:
eternal life. But only for the righteous. All other are asked to
abstain. For them there is only eternal damnation.
Another aspect of immortality is loneliness. The
individual mind exists as an authentic and autonomous given
phenomenon, but is able to recognise other individual minds as its
equals. Should we not be able to perceive the world around us,
including those other minds, we would become insane, because we would
be alone in the most fundamental sense of the word.
Immortal man however – if he should
exist – will be confronted with a space and a time without end and as
such without purpose. Our life begets it sense and meaning only at the
end of it. Before that moment arrives it is potential and unfulfilled.
Death is the necessary final chapter of life. The human mind is too
limited to grasp the principle of infinite space and infinite time. We
know these things exist, but cannot really understand them. To live
beyond our natural capacities, beyond what is naturally given to us in
time, would deprive us of this finality that closes the book of life.
An immortal man would then be confronted with
things his mind could not understand, that make him a stranger in this
universe, where everything else is temporal and finite. Hence his
loneliness. There is no-one to share his feelings and emotions,
because they can no longer be expressed under human terms. Even if we
would accept that existence is pointless than it would not become less
so if immortality were given to us.
I have another thought about immortality for the
religiously inspired reader. Why did God create mankind? Because man,
ungrateful as he is, could turn to the many possible idols and false
gods in order to beg them for this insane favour: to become as
immortal as their God. And another reason: man does not possess the
supreme patience of his God, allowing Him to postpone till eternity
that ultimate question: what is the moment of death?
If man would be immortal, he would no longer
live, because he would lack all moral and ethical feelings and
principles. God, in other words, in His infinity, lacks these
moral and ethical principles as well. Therefore His creation is
pointless, it is a labyrinth without meaning. The advantage for man in
all this is, that whatever he creates will be more ethical and contain
more meaning than anything his Creator has made tot exist.
This proposition is, however,
untenable: everything man makes is a part of the Divine creation. They
are inseparable. If God’s creation is pointless and without meaning,
then so is man’s creation. The ultimate purpose of life may prove to
be only life itself. Man will therefore not be able to create anything
or any creature that is more purposeful than himself.
I do not envy immortals – including
Vampires. They have so much more to lose than we, mere mortals. We
risk a few decades of common existence when we go into battle or
occupy ourselves with some dangerous sport. They literally risk their
eternity. Therefore they are bound to live different from us: the
blood of life they drink is so much more valuable than ours.
You will now understand why in this
matter of immortality I find it difficult to choose between a
wonderful and exciting future vision filled with technological and
scientific ingenuity than will unravel all mysteries on the one hand,
and, on the other hand, the careful necessity to think thoroughly
through every urge to break with our natural selves. There is, more
than ever before, the urgent need to ask the right ethical and even
esthetical questions. Although none of these may be grounded in the
sort of religious fanaticism that restricts the progress of science.
Cosmic and human mysteries are not the privilege of some God or
Creator, but are there for us to unravel. Evil does in fact find it
origin when creativity and progress are narrowed down by prejudices.
© Guido Eekhaut, 2003