Existentialist vs. Stoic (on imagining living forever)


An actual debate between an Existentialist (E) and a Stoic (S):

E: “When I hear people say ‘I can’t imagine living forever’, I’m just bewildered. There is the ultimate fate of the universe to consider, but beyond that, I can imagine living forever. (Even if was just going surfing every day, if I were just a surfer.)”

S: “Just because you can imagine living forever it doesn’t follow that your imagination has anything to do with the reality that would ensue. Human psychology simply cannot comprehend ‘forever’.”

E: “That’s why I included the constraining reality of the physical fate of the universe. Within that, I can imagine.”

S: “No, I suspect you (or anyone else) cannot imagine. You think you know what it would be like, but you don’t. It’s too far beyond anything any human being has ever experienced.”


Jean-Paul Sartre: Words with Friends – and Enemies – and, Well, Everyone…
Jim Booth

You have to like a guy who admits that what he’s about is keeping on keeping on, as we used to say back in the misty sixties. Sartre admits to us what all real writers admit – to themselves if to no one else – that he writes because he must; and he must so that he can make an attempt at immortality:

…my sole concern has been to save myself – nothing in my hands, nothing up my sleeve – by work and faith. Without equipment, without tools, I set all of me to work in order to save all of me. If I relegate impossible Salvation to the prop room, what remains? A whole man, composed of all men and as good as all of them and no better than any.


After finally capturing Sisyphus, the gods decided on his punishment for all eternity. He would have to push a rock up a mountain; upon reaching the top, the rock would roll down again, leaving Sisyphus to start over. Camus sees Sisyphus as the absurd hero who lives life to the fullest, hates death, and is condemned to a meaningless task. […] Sisyphus, just like the absurd man, keeps pushing. Camus claims that when Sisyphus acknowledges the futility of his task and the certainty of his fate, he is freed to realize the absurdity of his situation and to reach a state of contented acceptance. With a nod to the similarly cursed Greek hero Oedipus, Camus concludes that “all is well,” indeed, that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
cf. essay by David O’Regan, and one by Patrick Cao.

Though I’d rather be surfing (even if it’s only the internet) for all eternity.


Later in the E and S debate, others (X,Y,Z,W) commented:

X: “I don’t think you necessarily have to grasp the infinite to imagine what it might be like to live forever.Memory is presumably finite and can fade. So you might be trillions of years old but you might only every have a few thousand years worth of memories. Presumably you would fall into some sort of repeating loop or steady state. Not saying that’s desirable, but it’s imaginable at least.”

(Not bad.)

Y: “I think trying to picture a true ‘forever’ is like asking a bacterium to imagine being a human being.”

S: “Yup, I think that’s a far closer analogy.”

E: “I was really [see above] only talking about living out the rest of the life of the solar system or universe (however many more billions of years that is). That’s all.”

Z: “I think Douglas Adams had a good take on what immortality would do to a mortal being. We have Wowbagger, the Infinitely Prolonged, that ends up spending his time insulting every living being in the universe in alphabetical order. Apparently what did him in were the Sunday afternoons.”

E: “The moral of the story is that if you become immortal, don’t follow Wowbagger’s s example and insult the wrong people.”

W: “think trying to picture a true ‘forever’ is like asking a bacterium to imagine being a human being – Well I don’t know what that means because bacterium can’t imagine human beings because they can’t imagine anything. I don’t think that’s nitpicking either. I’m not even sure Chimpanzees can imagine things in the sense humans do. They either don’t imagine or they imagine in very limited ways, like imagining scenarios before acting. I think you have define what the conceptual bounds of imagination are to say what we’re talking about.”

X: “I’m not really trying to say we can imagine living forever — I have no strong views on this — I’m just pointing out that it might in some scenarios be more accurate not to imagine experiencing it as infinite. … Not sure analogies of bacterium -> human are appropriate. Something that has lived forever doesn’t necessarily have to be superhuman in other ways. It doesn’t have to be infinitely wise, or infinitely smart, or infinitely experienced (due to limitations on memory). A dog that lived forever would be perfectly happy with its daily routine, I expect. An immortal human might end up being similarly happy with a millennial routine.”

Sounds like X should meet Camus.

E: “Perhaps ‘for ever’ should be used instead of ‘forever’: In the United Kingdom and most of the Commonwealth, the spelling ‘for ever’ may be used instead of ‘forever’ for the senses ‘for all time’ and ‘for a long time’. In Canada and the United States, generally only ‘forever’ is used, regardless of sense. [Wiktionary]. And ‘all time’ itself may only have a few billion years left.”


Philip Thrift


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