Significance and motivation

Over at philosophical disquisitions, John Danaher is discussing Aaron Smuts’ response to Bernard Williams’ argument that immortality would be tedious. Smuts’ thesis, in Danaher’s words, is a familiar one:

Immortality would lead to a general motivational collapse because it would sap all our decisions of significance.

This is interestingly at odds with my observations, which suggests that people are much more motivated to do things that seem unimportant, and have to constantly press themselves to do important things once in a while. Most people have arbitrary energy for reading unimportant online articles, playing computer games, and talking aimlessly. Important articles, serious decisions, and momentous conversations get put off.

Unsurprisingly then, people also seem to take more joy from apparently long-run insignificant events. Actually I thought this was the whole point of such events. For instance people seem to quite like cuddling and lazing in the sun and eating and bathing and watching movies. If one had any capacity to get bored of these things, I predict it would happen within the first century. While significant events also bring joy, they seem to involve a lot more drudgery in preceding build up.

So it seems to me that living forever could only take the pressure off and make people more motivated and happy. Except inasmuch as the argument is faulty in other ways, e.g. impending death is not the only time constraint on activities.

Have I missed something?

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  • http://khurtwilliams.com/ Khürt L. Williams

    I’m not a philosopher — I’m an engineer — but there are many practical consequences to immortality.

    US Copyright law — copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years.  All copyright would become forever.

    Ppopulation growth — I imagine that avoiding accidental death would become important.  Assuming that birth rates don’t drop to zero, death rates would drop significantly leading to population explosion and stress on the planets natural resources.  I think wars would become quite commons as a means to control rampant growth.

    • V_V

       Also, differences of status and wealth between people of different generations would increase

    • Anonymous

      Accidental death is less of a problem if you’re an em with backups.

  • lump1

    What I don’t like about this “immortality: blessing or curse?” debate is that everyone forgets how different people are. Your point seems right: There are some people whose temperament leaves them well-suited for immortality – namely those who live day to day and know how to savor the nice but cosmically unimportant moments. Then again, there are many people for whom even our natural lifetimes are too long. With an adequately leaky memory, I think I’d be reasonably well-suited for immortality, as long as others stuck around for smalltalk and the composing of those unimportant internet articles! Also, I’d feel better if I knew I could always end my life at will – not that I think I would, but the option seems important.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen R. Diamond

      everyone forgets how different people are

      I think the assumption is reasonable that immortality would either be good or bad for most people. It involves perhaps the most drastic change conceivable in our presumptions about our lives. The idea that the good and bad aspects of such a sea change is likely to be evenly distributed enough that individual difference dominate seems the more far-fetched opinion.

  • Nancy Lebovitz

    The other thing is that the people who do a lot aren’t all the same– some of them do seem to be driven by fear of death (though even some of them might be just trying to explain their drive to people who don’t share it), but not all of them.

    Folks who aren’t doing to have a problem keeping themselves amused.

  • Hankfox1

    I know TEENAGERS who are bored with life. It’s stupid, but there it is.

    I’d say an immortal society would quickly develop a subculture of lifelong adventure, education, exploration and experimentation, the tenets of which would be taught to children early. That subculture would eventually overtake and replace the grumpy, whiny drones of boredom.

  • Michael Vassar

    I predict that Katja is right about this, but I also think that people aren’t really bothered by the consequences of loss of significance but by the loss itself.  There might be a gender difference here as well.

    • Chris

       
      people aren’t really bothered by the consequences of loss of significance but by the loss itself 

      I think you’re right, although I struggle to understand the view since I seem to lack the desire for “significance” (or its cousin, “meaning”). I have never thought that life had “significance”, in the sense people usually mean it, as something imparted on the material universe from the outside, and it has never bothered me a bit. 
      So, yeah, lump1 is right. People really are heterogeneous in preferences, and I really wish philosophers would get over their belief that a one-sized-fits-all answer to the question of significance and immortality. Life is already meaningless, the existence of death doesn’t change that, and at least some people (me) are perfectly OK with that.

      (I also think you’re right about a gender difference, which I’d be curious to understand better.)

  • richatd silliker

    Thanks for the disclosure.

  • http://blog.seliger.com jseliger

    This is interestingly at odds with my observations, which suggests that people are much more motivated to do things that seem unimportant, and have to constantly press themselves to do important things once in a while.

    Read Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams if you get a chance. The novel uses the Einste’s dreams about time as a metaphor for the way many of us perceive time, its uses, and achievement or its lack.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen R. Diamond

    people are much more motivated to do things that seem unimportant, and have to constantly press themselves to do important things once in a while

    It’s one thing to say our estimate of importance is an imperfect (or even weak) predictor of what we do; it’s another to say we would be pleased to do things we know are utterly unimportant. Don’t you find yourself reaching for some far-mode justification when you fill your time trivially?

    But I think the reverse of the view that death gives import. The import we derive from our mortality is really a feeble surrogate for the import we lose by knowing everything comes to naught.

    It seems to me part of the problem besetting those who claim immortality would stultify is that they are conceiving of immortality as completed, conceiving of a “potential infinity” as an actual infinity. In the end, every infinitely long life is equally gratifying, but no end exists. Meanwhile, self-improvement continues (I assume) to be cumulative. Immortals will become obsessed with their own self-improvement. (Which doesn’t sound bad to me.)

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen R. Diamond

    The real downside to immortality, if there is one, lies elsewhere. My “intuition” is that there is a downside, the intuitive reason being that I wouldn’t unequivocally opt for immortality, given the choice. infinite life provides not only infinite possibilities for pain but infinite possibilities for the most severe pain for horribly long time periods. Unless the immortals have conquered the problem of pain and the problem of death (or at least some basic ancillary mechanisms), they will dread their inevitable suffering in the distant future.

    The mechanism is loss aversion. It’s “irrational,” but in making ultimate decisions, its all there is.

    • Hankfox1

      I’ve been in a lot of immortality discussions, and inevitably someone will bring up the prolonged suffering argument. The two simple answers are:

      1) Immortality certainly implies a cure for every disease, including old age.

      2) You can always choose to die.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen R. Diamond

         I didn’t know there’s a tradition of immortality argument.

        Anyway,I don’t see how one can be “certain” about 1; and a little uncertainty may be all that’s necessary.

        And 2 is certainly false. If you can live forever, there is no guarantee that someone can’t deny you the right to die. (e.g., you may not have possession and control over your backup tapes).

        Finally, disease (and mishap generally) isn’t the only possibility for pain. Consider the possibility of deliberate severe torture during your long life. If it’s at all probable, it’s inevitable.

      • Hook

        The concept of quantum immortality is slightly terrifying because precisely those two propositions are violated.

  • DanielHaggard

    I gotta admit… if I did live forever I would have more motivation to worry about these sorts of questions than I do with my current anticipated lifespan.

    So if this is any indication then I agree with Katja.. immortality would certainly take the pressure off…

  • Drewfus

    Good post Katja. Quoting the quote:
    “Immortality would lead to a general motivational collapse because it would sap all our decisions of significance.”
    Made me think (and worry about) this (quote):
    “Science advances one funeral at a time.” Max Planck
    Either this is a brick wall for all future-tech and hyper-growth rates, or in the future, expert opinion will not be so highly regarded or cared about. Something has to give, or we will be stuck at current rates of growth and progress, or things might even get worse if life extension technologies become somewhat successful. What to do about this?
    “This is interestingly at odds with my observations, which suggests that people are much more motivated to do things that seem unimportant, and have to constantly press themselves to do important things once in a while.”
    Are important things more effortful than the unimportant things (in general)? If yes, then the brain is an effort-minimizing device, not a utility maximizing one (or perhaps it’s both). If no, then why would people avoid attending to important things if they were relatively easy to deal with?
    In regard to the last few paragraphs and the closing question; Is life too long, rather than too short? Whenever i see people standing on slow, mildly inclined elevators, i’m sure the general answer is ‘yes’.

  • tipareth

    I’m sorry but this discussion is so academic as to be useless.  If man were immortal we would be entirely different creatures with an entirely different history and psychology. We also would have stopped reproducing a long time ago and would most likely have a perfect society because we wouldn’t have had pesky deaths and falls of empires and history to repeat. This is just silly and pointless.

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