Monday, February 14, 2022

The Time of Your Life

guest post by Amy Kind

In The Matrix, Morpheus presents Neo with a difficult choice.  Take the red pill, and get access to genuine reality, as brutal and painful as it is.  Take the blue pill, and remain in blissful ignorance in the world of illusion.  Neo chooses the red pill, and to my mind, he makes the right choice – though others disagree.  But now suppose that we were in another movie altogether, one in which someone was offered pills that asked them to make an entirely different difficult choice.  Take the red pill, and get access to endless reality, that is, become immortal.  Take the blue pill, and go back to your normal mortal life.  What’s the right choice here?  

This latter dilemma is essentially the scenario envisioned by the ńĆapek play, The Makropulous Secret. Having been given an elixir of life, Elina Makropulous has lived for over three centuries.  But now, though she is scared to die, she no longer has any desire to live on.  Should she take another dose of the elixir, or should she let her life end?  As Elina assesses things, immortality is not something to be valued.  She describes herself as frozen, as in a state of ennui, and she thinks anyone else who lived as long as she has would likewise come to see that nothing matters.  There is nothing to believe in, no real progress, no higher values, no love.  Yes, she could continue to exist forever, but it would be an existence in which “life has stopped.” 

In an influential philosophical discussion of this play, Bernard Williams agrees with Elina’s assessment of an immortal life.  In his view, immortality is not something to be valued.  No matter what kind of person one is, at a certain point one’s ceaseless life would by necessity become tedious.  One simply runs out of the kinds of desires that can sustain one through eternity.  The case against immortality is bolstered by numerous works of science fiction, from Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire to The Twilight Zone episode “Long Live Walter Jameson” to the story “The Immortal” by Jorge Luis Borges.  As Jameson says in the Twilight Zone episode, it’s death that gives life its point.

But there are other SF works that present a different picture – works like Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, in which the immortal characters Anyanwu and Doro each find projects to sustain themselves.  Williams’ view has also come under criticism from philosophers.  Some have argued that he neglects to consider the fact that many pleasurable experiences are infinitely repeatable and thus can continue to sustain us through an immortal life.  Others have argued that he is working with a misconception of the notion of boredom.  When it comes to the value of immortality, there thus seems room for reasonable disagreement.

This question concerns the temporal duration of life.  But in addition to questions about life’s duration, there are other kinds of temporally related questions we might ask about life.  And just as SF has valuable insights to provide about life’s temporal duration, we might naturally expect that SF would have some valuable insights to provide in exploring these other questions as well.[1] 

One such question has to do with the temporal directionality of life:  What would happen if instead of starting as a baby and growing older over time, we started at an advanced age and grew younger over time?  Here our expectations about the relevance of science fiction are indeed met.  The archaeologist Rachel Weintraub in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion presents a thought-provoking case study of backwards aging.  Likewise, Philip K. Dick’s short story “Your Appointment Will Be Yesterday” presents an entire world that is aging in reverse; in doing so, Dick shows how hard it is to conceptualize what life would be like were this to happen.

Yet another question has to do with the temporal rate of life:  What would happen if we aged at a vastly different rate?  This issue too has often been explored in science fiction, and we see case studies from Star Trek to Star Wars.  In “The Deadly Years,” an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, various members of the Enterprise crew begin to age about a decade a day after coming down with an unusual form of radiation poisoning.  The clones bred to be clone troopers in Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones are genetically engineered to age at twice the normal rate.  And we see numerous other examples of rapid aging throughout science fiction, from books and stories to tv shows and movies.

Oddly, however, when these SF works explore themes of rapid aging, they don’t really seem to pursue any interesting philosophical issues that it might raise.  Are there other works that do so?  Or is the problem that there aren’t really any interesting philosophical issues to be raised on this topic?

I was prompted to think about this issue recently after watching, “Old,” a 2021 film by M. Night Shyamalan.  According to the promos, the movie follows a family on vacation “who discover that the secluded beach where they are relaxing for a few hours is somehow causing them to age rapidly … reducing their entire lives into a single day.”  I didn’t expect the movie to be good.  Its score on Rotten Tomatoes was worrisome.  But I did expect it to raise interesting philosophical questions about aging.  Alas, though my first expectation was proved correct, my second was not.

Afterwards, I found myself thinking more and more about this second expectation.  Why didn’t the movie raise any interesting questions?  I don’t buy the answer that it’s because it was a bad movie.  In fact, I think there are all sorts of bad movies that raise interesting philosophical questions.[2] 

Initially I was toying with the idea that it had something to do with the genre of the movie.  “Old” is a horror movie, not a science fiction movie.  And while the genre of science fiction is well positioned to raise philosophical questions in an interesting way, perhaps the genre of horror is not.  The fact that there’s very little coverage of horror in the Blackwell or Open Court pop culture and philosophy series might provide some very small measure of support for this hypothesis (though I’m hesitant to put too much weight on this kind of evidence).  Having thought it over more, however, I’m less sure that the hypothesis is right.  To take one salient counterexample, Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out explores all sorts of important philosophical issues about black lives and black bodies.  In any event, though I know lots about SF, I don’t think I know enough about horror or have enough familiarity with horror to make a real judgment about this.

Ultimately, my reflections about horror/science fiction led me to a second hypothesis.  As I thought more about genre and how it affected the kinds of reflections on aging that “Old” undertook (or, rather, failed to undertake), I started wondering what the movie would have been like had it been a SF film.  How would the questions have been explored?  My main thought was that the accelerated rate of aging would have to be considerably slowed down.  In “Old,” with the characters aging at the rate of two years per hour, life moves too quickly for one even to have time to reflect on how one would want to live it.  I’m not sure what acceleration rate would be more thought-provoking.  A year a day?  At that rate, an average US lifespan of 78 years would be lived in less than three months.  A year a week?  At that rate, an average US lifespan would be lived in roughly a year and a half.  But neither of these strikes me as a particularly interesting scenario to explore – even via SF.  Thus, my second hypothesis arose:  The problem wasn’t genre, the problem was the topic itself.  Unlike other temporal questions related to life, issues about temporal rate aren’t especially ripe for philosophical exploration.  

I’m not convinced this hypothesis is right, and I worry that I’m missing something obvious here.  Perhaps those of you more creative than I am can think of something.  (And maybe those of you who write SF can take this as a challenge.)  In any case, I’d welcome your thoughts in the comments.

But I’ll close with one last thought that might seem to support the hypothesis.  There’s lot of room to disagree about which choice is right with Morpheus’ red pill/blue pill choice, i.e., lots of room to disagree about whether ignorance is bliss.  And there’s lots of room to disagree about which choice is right with my amended red pill/blue choice, i.e., lots of room to disagree about whether immortality is desirable.  But were Morpheus to offer you a choice between the red pill that would make you age at a rate vastly quicker than normal, and the blue pull that would allow you to return to your normal aging rate, it’s hard to see how there’s any room for disagreement here.  Why would anyone want to take the red pill?


[1] Of course, in addition to exploring temporal questions about life, science fiction also explores issues relating to the nature of time and our experience of it. I take up the treatment of time in Star Trek (and particularly in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) in my “Time, the Final Frontier.”

[2] Many of my former students will attest to this, as I have often assigned (forced) them to watch bad movies in the service of a philosophical point. Perhaps the most dramatic example is The Thirteenth Floor (which scores 30% on the Tomatometer). The entire room of students exploded into laughter at various parts of the movie – parts that unfortunately were not at all intended to be funny.

[image source]


Aaron Segal said...

Thanks, Amy, for the thought-provoking post. But I think there’s more philosophical interest in cases of speeding up life than you’re giving them credit for. Rapid aging all by itself might not be terribly interesting. But thinking about speeding up everything in your life—so that you end up doing all the same things you actually do, but in half the time, say—brings into focus the question of whether temporal duration, just as such, adds anything desirable to your life. I think this is interesting and important, not least because it also bears on whether immortality itself—infinite duration just as such--can add anything desirable to your life. If you take an immortal life, a really good one (supposing that’s possible), and then condensed it into the course of an hour—take the first day of the immortal life and condense it into half an hour, then the next day and condense it into the next quarter hour, and so on—is the result just as desirable? Roy Sorenson (“The Cheated God: Death and Personal Time” Analysis 2005) registers the intuition that it is. And in my paper “Why Live Forever? What Metaphysics Can Contribute” (Erkenntnis 2018) I try to argue for the same conclusion. In effect, the question that’s more interesting than the one you pose at the end is whether there’s any reason to prefer the blue pill over the red one. And I’d love to know if there’s any good SF story out there about this sort of thing!

Howie said...

We live in the present- the present is always fresh, even if its the same as the good or bad old days- we are influenced by the past but someone who is thirty five years old doesn't have thirty five years in his pocket like thirty five dollars-
Plus, if we all get old immortally, we can experiment with ways and this is a collective enterprise, we can keep things fresh- if people don't tire of meditation, they won't tire of life
When I was a kid I agreed with the figures you cited- but they are merely trying to sound deep and they're not- they're not even hip

David Duffy said...

Consider the Daoist immortals, especially in xianxia stories. I was quite impressed by the many issues covered in the web novel My Senior Brother is Too Steady, where the protagonist has died early in our world from cancer, and so is very keen on cultivating immortality and avoiding violent death in the Primordial World he has transmigrated to.

More purely SFnal, in The Mote in God's Eye, the aliens are hiding the fact that they only live 20 years so they can play the pity card in negotiations with those slow thinking humans. They regard twenty in the same way that Williams might regard three score and ten. Of course, there are multiple stories where alien intelligences think, live and die at vastly faster rates than humans with the advantage of faster cultural development (eg Microcosmic God, Dragons Egg)

Howard said...

Another idea: do we ever get bored by our nightly dreams? Even if life gets repetitive, our inner resources are maybe not infinite, but inexhaustible

Kev said...

Re "ignorance is bliss"...

Ignorance of the reality of lies and deceptions (=most mainstream news and establishment decrees) is bliss because exposing yourself to that is self-propagandization.

Ignorance of truths is not, or only temporarily or rarely, bliss because it is ultimately self-defeating.

The FALSE mantra of "ignorance is bliss", promoted in the latter sense, is a product of a fake sick culture that has indoctrinated its "dumbed down" (therefore TRULY ignorant, therefore easy to control) people with many such manipulative slogans. You can find the proof that ignorance is never bliss (only superficial fake bliss), and how you get to buy into this lie (and other self-defeating lies), in the article “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room –The Holocaustal Covid-19 Coronavirus Madness: A Sociological Perspective & Historical Assessment Of The Covid “Phenomenon”” at

"Blissful" believers in "ignorance is bliss" -- blissfully stupid people -- are nearly always self-destructive indifferent immoral ignoramuses and/or members of herd stupidity... speaking of which, with the letters of "omicron" an alleged Covid variant you can spell "moronic"

And further speaking of stupid herd people not getting the glaringly obvious truth/ie not getting the constant onslaught of BIG lies of the official authorities......

"2 weeks to flatten the curve has turned into...3 shots to feed your family!" --- Unknown

“If 'ignorance is bliss' –there should be more happy people.” --- Unknown

chinaphil said...

Just on the issue of how much horror versus sci-fi can inspire philosophy: one of the best known philosophical toys of the last few decades, zombies, came from horror. (And Descartes relied on a demon to feed his unfortunate characters inaccurate sensory data, but perhaps that was before the genre of horror really existed!)

I'm not sure about the question of why faster/slower time hasn't attracted more philosophical comment, but maybe there are two factors worth considering. First, I don't think philosophers have addressed time in general very well; second, perhaps considerations of faster/slower perceived time have been addressed when looking at childhood (when time seems to go slower) and old age (when time seems to go faster). There has been some work on those topics, though probably not enough!

Amy Kind said...

Aaron, Thanks for the comment and the reference to your paper and also Roy's paper, both of which I look forward to checking out. My first thought is that the question you mention really is one about the nature of time and not about aging but I'll refrain from commenting more substantively until I read the papers!

Amy Kind said...

chinaphil - I don't think that philosophical zombies really have all that much to do with the zombies of horror, though definitely philosophers borrowed the name from there. The walking dead zombies of horror don't typically raise the cool philosophical questions that the zombies of philosophy do. In thinking about your comment, though, I'm reminded of Mike Carey's novel, The Girl with All the Gifts and its depiction of Melanie, a zombie of sorts. That book does raise some cool philosophical questions. But, interestingly, even though it's about zombies, it is classified as SF or SF/fantasy, not as horror.

Christopher Devlin Brown said...

Hi Amy,

I think there may be something of philosophical (or at least rhetorical) value in the consideration of rapid aging scenarios. Specifically, when I tell people that I would like to not age, and that I am actively working toward that goal (by e.g. doing periodic fasting, taking experimental drugs, keeping up with the relevant scientific literature, etc.), I often encounter the following response. People say: 'I don't understand why you are doing that. Aging is both natural and beautiful. I look forward to progressing through the various stages of aging.' It would be interesting to see how this attitude tracks onto rapid-aging scenarios. For instance, if it were natural for e.g. a random 1/3 of the population to age much faster than the rest of us, would most people still feel that it is beautiful and natural to undergo aging? If rapid aging is undesirable (as I think nearly everyone will agree), are there nonetheless good grounds for maintaining that non-rapid aging is desirable? That is, consideration of rapid aging scenarios might plausibly expose issues with folk attitudes concerning the value of normal aging (and I encounter those folk attitudes fairly regularly, because of my proclivities).