TL;DR: Immortality may seem like it would be boring. But an awful lot of people have hobbies and projects that would probably work out better if those people had more time to get things done. What’s more, these activities might be more exciting the longer they went on, rather than less.
To illustrate this, I use the example of a Go master, who is in love with a fiendishly hard game and might continue improving for centuries, given the chance — and that’s just one popular board game in a universe of activities.
I’d like to clear up a common misconception about living forever.
To be clear, I like the idea of immortality. I expect that I will die well before the year 3000, but I also expect that if humanity gets and keeps its collective act together, the grandchildren of our generation will not necessarily face the same fate.
Many people express dismay at the notion of immortality. They present several objections, but I’m here to address exactly one:
“Wouldn’t it be boring to live forever?”
This isn’t the strongest or most common objection. But I still hear it often enough to be confused.
There are some good rebuttals to the notion of “boring immortality”, but they tend to follow one of two patterns:
- Very long, written by academics, and formal enough that I’m not comfortable linking to them in case they’ve made a logical mistake that would invalidate their claims.
- Medium-length, written by techno-futurists for techno-futurists, and full of assumptions about the future that may or may not come to fruition.
These forms each have strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully, this short essay, built on a simple example from the present day, will have a different set of strengths and weaknesses.
The Master of Go
Part I: Shen Yu’s Passion
Go is a Chinese board game that is roughly as popular in Asia as chess is in Europe and the U.S.
I’d like to introduce you to Shen Yu. He is 20 years old and a skilled Go player; he loves Go more than any other activity. In fact, he recently achieved the rank of 1 dan, the lowest recognized level of professional skill.
Like many games, Go is easy to learn, quick to reveal a few of its secrets… and ridiculously hard to master.
In fact, as Shen Yu both celebrates and laments, Go is much harder to master than almost any other activity. The game offers many more possible plays than chess at any given moment, and direct tactics may be less important than clever feats of positioning which only become relevant fifty moves later.
In some ways, Go is too complex for humans to understand. Someone who really “gets” Go, understands it to the point of seeing the best move in any position — well, they’d either be a transhuman, a supercomputer in the year 2040, or a one-in-a-trillion genius who finds the game young and studies for half a lifetime.
Shen Yu, who is only an ordinary human, understands this very well. But Go is his life, and he continues to play despite the challenge.
Part II: Shen Yu’s Problem
Shen Yu has roughly 25 more years in which to learn and understand the game before he begins to lose his edge. Chess players seem to peak by 45, and while any master can keep learning for a long time after — as new strategies are invented, for example — Shen Yu will face a hard stop in another 40 years. Death and dementia will put an end to his quest for mastery.
And with Go, true mastery simply can’t be grasped in that short period of time.
The extreme difficulty of Go brings out a certain mysticism in some players, Shen Yu included. He makes many of his moves because they “feel” right, or because they follow a particular Go heuristic that would be almost impossible to test scientifically. As The New Yorker puts it:
“Go strategies through the millennia are collected in aphorisms and proverbs, and some of them—“Never cut a bamboo joint,” “Don’t go fishing when your house is on fire,” “Never chase a dragon”—can be easily translated into lines of code.”
Shen Yu, like every top Go player, would love to improve his understanding of the game, to cut through some of these metaphors and make fewer mistakes as a result. But life is short, and Go is a vast, deep ocean. He can only swim so far. And eventually he will sink.
A manga series called Hikaru No Go, which sold 22 million copies in Japan, includes a beautiful motif known as “The Divine Move” (rendered, in my translation, as “The Hand of God”). Any player who uncovers a divine move by inventing an innovative strategy is celebrated — even by their opponent — as a person who moves the game towards perfection.
To deal with the sad facts of death and decay, Go masters pin their hopes on new players who might continue the search for perfection that they themselves will be forced to abandon. Hikaru no Go presents the professional Go world as a community of players bound by mutual love and respect, all of them engaged in a collective search for divine moves, building the game together over the centuries.
This incredible togetherness happens because people like Shen Yu enjoy placing black and white stones on a wooden board. “Boring” doesn’t always mean what you think it means.
Part II: Immortality Is Not Boring
Imagine if you could give Shen Yu an extra 50 years of life, with sound mind and body, capable of retaining his full ability to learn and grow as a player. Another lifetime to engage in the project to which he is devoted, alongside so many others. Another lifetime in which to teach and compete with the rising stars of future generations.
Would he get bored?
What if you gave him an extra 1000 years?
* * * * *
Perhaps, someday, Shen Yu comes to feel as though he’s reached a limit in his love of Go.
So he puts it aside for a few years. He learns to play chess, or Magic: The Gathering, or some new game invented while he was living his second lifetime.
As he grows older and wiser, he gains mastery in many new skills. Perhaps he begins to write books — books that could only be written by a person with the patience and experience of a Go master. Perhaps he takes some time off from intellectual life and climbs mountains or plays Frisbee. Perhaps he falls in love.
The game doesn’t leave him. It remains, always open to be played. Other games develop, taking Go in different directions, some of which are just as intriguing to Shen Yu as the original.
And even if we assume that he has to live in a world with no extraordinary technology — no cryogenic sleep, for example, to allow him to skip ahead 100 years and experience the future immediately — I think that he would learn to live with immortality. There’s a lot of universe out there.
And if, centuries or millennia later, Shen Yu becomes truly bored of everything…
Death is always an option. It just isn’t mandatory anymore.
Immortality Is What You Make Of It
Immortality doesn’t have to be boring. It represents a chance to work towards goals that are beyond the reach of a single human lifespan, and to realize ambitions on a formerly impossible scale.
If some of us are not like Shen Yu, and have no passion that drives us forward other than the thought of reaching each of life’s milestones, including death within a “natural” lifespan, there’s nothing wrong with that. But a world where it’s possible to live and grow for more than a few decades offers a new set of possibilities, and might just make us a new set of people.