I am a Christian who has suffered apeirophobia (fear of immortality/heaven) since childhood. With great enthusiasm I read John Martin Fischer’s “Our Stories: Essays on Life, Death, and Free Will” (especially the essay “Why Immortality Is Not so Bad”. “Our Stories” is the only book I’m aware of that directly addresses the fears that have haunted me for so long and offers alternative ways to think about the subject of eternal life. For this I am extremely grateful for Fischer’s book.
Fischer’s main goal is to show that death is bad. To do this, Fischer argues (against the epicureans) that death is a deprivation of the good. The epicureans argued that death cannot be bad for a person who dies because the dead person has no unpleasant experience. They held that it’s irrational to fear death since people do not typically fear their prenatal nonexistence. But through thought experiments, Fischer argues that asymmetric attitudes towards prenatal and postmortem nonexistence are in line with the human tendency to prefer good experiences be in the future than in the past.
Just because Fischer has made a decent case for death’s badness, however, doesn’t mean the alternative (immortality) is necessarily desirable. Perhaps reality is absurdly tragic, and the only two possible options are both bad. That’s been my painful dilemma, simultaneously fearing the possibilities of annihilation and living forever. It’s a paradox. Maybe even a contradiction.
So Fischer doesn’t settle with merely showing why death is bad. He attempts to show how immortality could be desirable.
His theory that with a rotation of repeatable pleasures – sex, delectable food, beautiful scenery, our favorite music – spaced far enough apart, one could be happy forever, is quite ingenious. For the first time in my life I’m not sure immortality would necessarily be bad. However, there is still a problem that was not addressed in “Our Stories”. I call it the telos problem. On earth we are primarily driven by our need to eat, drink, and have shelter. But in heaven, presumably, we don’t have to worry about procuring those things. What will drive us to do anything? As of now, here on earth, I (like most if not all people) have a cycle: Leave home for work, come home for dinner and rest, repeat, with trips outside the home for leisure activities dispersed throughout the work/rest cycle. But in heaven, presumably there is no work. Think of the economy. So many people are employed in healthcare, law enforcement, military, advertising… But in heaven there would be no need for these occupations. So what do people do, leisure all the time? As crazy as this may sound, that sounds scary to me. I think the pursuit of things that we need to do to survive underlies our happiness. I wonder if Fischer shares my intuition that a telos is essential to human happiness, and I wonder how he thinks humans could be driven to do things in a world where they don’t need to do anything to survive.
Unfortunately, there is a dearth of literature responding to Bernard Williams’ persuasive essay that immortality would be bad. It’s my hope that other philosophers pick up where Fischer has started. There’s nothing in Our Stories that will cause a gestalt shift in how an apeirophobe views unending life, but there is plenty of food for thought that can at least reduce those fears.