The word “immortals” is entwined in my mind with the Jorge Luis Borges’ story titled The Immortals. The story is an exploration of immortal beings imprisoned in the infinite and seeking to understand their condition. This passage in particular speaks a truth about our ideas of immortality.
“Indoctrinated by a practice of centuries the republic of immortal men had attained the perfection of tolerance and almost that of indifference. They knew that in an infinite period of time, all things happened to all men. Because of his past or future virtues, every man is worthy of all goodness, but also of all perversity because of his infamy in the past or future.”
Over the years I’ve gone back and reread the story. Each reading demonstrated that a different “I” was reading the story than the person who years before had processed the same words. The words had not changed. However, my perception and processing of the words had changed in ways that revealed the separation of that prior self from the current one reading the story. Having again reread The Immortals recently, I’ve collected the thoughts of the contemporary “I” on the subject of immortality.
As for the word “time”, it is the measurement instrument we use to mark the existence of our short span of life. It starts and it ends. In between is the duration. In The Order of Time, Carlo Rovelli discusses the way of seeing events: a hug, a soldier’s salute, a Bach Sonata, rivers, seas and mountain are all events. Only their duration over time separates them. Human beings as biological creatures are an event in time. Some may find it repugnant or unacceptable to insist that we are time wise in the same category as a hug or a mountain. Instead, we construct religions and beliefs about immortality. This doesn’t solve the fundamental problem; it merely avoids facing it head on. The inevitability of our dissolution would make Sisyphus shutter.
Our metaphysical journey begins with the desire to be immortal. It’s a wish for a certain state of being. It’s not an act or a sensation. Like the word ‘infinite’ we have no real understanding of what it means to be immortal. We think of the infinite as being a very, very long time. That is wrong on its face. It ignores that to be immortal is to live outside of time or beyond time. But we want a foot in time, too. The paradox of a creature which evolved over time wishing to exist outside of time while also living inside time is what led Borges to examine what such being would build in time. Borges described the abandoned palaces the immortals built: a horror of labyrinths, dead-end corridors, high unattainable windows, portentous doors leading to a cell or pit, or incredibly inverted stairways to nowhere. The immortals abandoned, or perhaps it is better to say they escaped, the palace complex to dwell in caves where they became pure thought, living in an eternal speculation. They chose to live beyond time.
Borges’s clever tale anticipated the proof that entropy dissembles, splits, and scatters their atoms and particles and this scattering is how time is experienced. His trick was to remove his immortals from their fantastic palaces and leave them to dissolve into the sphere of atoms. The immortals escaped time in Borges’s story by the abstraction of pure thought. Was a thought like any other event such as a kiss or the earth’s magnetic field? Time, after all, is the mechanism used to measure the state of disorder of an event. Nothing in nature reserves immortality for an elite category of events. All objects and things exist under an unpardonable death sentence. To be mortal is to be in time, and to be in time is to become disordered. To be immortal means you are no longer an event that falls into dust, something that disintegrates. What is a thought made of? As it arises from the brain of a physical being, its originator is atom-built. To disassemble the thought generator is to destroy the mechanism by which thought arises. Pure speculation is a seductive path, but like Borges’ palace it is another form of labyrinths, dead-end corridors, high unattainable windows.
Without the anchor in time, there is no basis for norms, values, plans, novelty or destinations. Everything repeats. Endlessly. Remove time and there are no boundaries, no shores, no horizon that curves or lavish palaces.
For thousands of years, we’ve witnessed the creation of manifold immortality projects. The projects of the powerful resist with all of its might and power to knock entropy from the saddle. We find their efforts re-expressed in the language of architecture—the castles, cathedrals, pyramids, towering glass and chrome high-rises; the idea of immortality is buttressed by myths, legends, religion and culture. These are our tangible and intangible weapons used to fight against our existential anxiety of being dismantled into atoms and recycled. Our denial of death is strong, enduring and has not waivered over time. It has created a ‘self’ that screams out for preservation, protection and safety. We have a long history of making desperate special pleading to be spared. We make confessions, perform penance, and pay indulgences like a poker player with a losing hand but hoping he can bluff his way through.
This is despite the evidence that science has collected and analyzed which makes it clear that even the universe itself with all of its observable matter will not last. No prayer or penance grants a forever outcome. Like Jorge Luis Borges’s Immortals we may elect to retreat into a world of pure speculation. Thoughts emerged from networks of neurons in the brain. No brain, no thought, no immortality. Salvation is bulldozed by entropy. Even if this were true, it doesn’t change Borges’s story. His is a fictional world. That is where immortality belongs—on the fiction shelf. Even in the land of fiction, immortality, is riddled with contradictions and paradoxes. For example, by avoiding the constraints of time, one immortal can construct every man and every woman, live their lives, invent languages, codes, and machines and forget what he’d done where and when. Borges’ named his immortal Argos after the old dog, which appears in the Odyssey. But we aren’t Argos. Borges says that is an illusion. This ignorance of who we really are is tied to Argos’s fate, which is to forget us, too. We blink out of memory. We are left to contemplate the fate of our mortal ‘self’, one that arises from our atomic structure. That structure comes undone over time. The assemblage is transitory. No building of monuments, literary, physical or digital objects or things can change that disordering.
I wonder if we dared to take a moment of reflection about the impossibility of immortality, we could change the worldview of our species. No other species shares this fictional worldview. We are the old dog who hasn’t bothered to learn the true nature of the world. The results of such ignorance and hubris are predictable. The most fearful, powerful, greedy and ambitious of people grab what they can to build a legend. They have a strong cultural incentive to violate any and all moral prohibitions if the end result will guarantee a box seat in the theatre of our collective future memory.
We might scale back our idea of personal immortality moving the dial closer to a very long time into the future—longer than a kiss, but less than forever. A long collective future memory is easier to hijack if the techniques left an impressive trail of slaughter, pillage, wreckage, murder, torture, and enslavement. The Great Khan is a good example. His reign of terror left a ghostly trace in our collective memory. His shadow inspired by legends and contemporary documents has given him a long after life. His atoms long since scattered. He’s an object of myth and fables, and like pure speculation, they will decay until time erases them like formula written in chalk on a blackboard.
It’s not just the Great Khan who will be erased. Einstein, Newton, Shakespeare, Confucius, Socrates, Bach, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Seneca and the rest who seem immortal will be forgotten. They may be stored in the long-term memory of a database in a cosmic cloud lost in the sea of information including the position of the asteroids in the Kuipler Belt in our Solar system, the 200 billion stars in our galaxy, and the stars contained in two trillion other galaxies. None of that big information carries the warm hug of immortality. It all ultimately is erased.
Ludwig Wittgenstein famously in 1951 adopted a metaphor, which he couldn’t have known would become a symbol half a century later of the fibre optic cable culture. He said, “We extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.” Is it possible we understand only part of one fibre in the infinite number of fibres wrapped around each other? Perhaps our limited perspective on immortality is founded on a misunderstanding about our measurements of things, including time. We think of time as having a beginning and ending. A duration. The reality may be different. The length of the whole may not be anchored by a start and finish point.. Our idea of Time arises from our limited understanding of the overlapping ‘fibres’ most of which we neither can detect nor measure.
The laws of physics deliver the concept of entropy based on our understanding of how a fibre twist, bends, turns and dissolves. The scientific consensus is that entropy is a kind of poison chalice that all atomic structures ultimately drink from. All of the galaxies and stars are merely other categories of events that last much longer than a kiss, mountain or Argos. These cosmic events, too, will fall apart and the component elements return more disordered to the world of atoms. It doesn’t stop at the doorstep of atoms. The atoms are themselves events in time that unravel into fundamental particles, and in the very end of a very long time the universe is a dark, empty place. No stars, moons, planets. No Great Khan. No wink or nod. Not even a solitary proton remains. But the place isn’t really empty. It’s teeming with quantum energy, and you and I may be in a universe that emerged from a quantum fluctuation, spooling out the first thread of a new fibre in an infinite cable. Isn’t that the definition of immortality—the beginning and the ending are indistinguishable and never extinguished?