Wotton’s Society Professor Adrian Moore on ‘Immortality and Infinity’

On 26 January the Wotton’s Society was privileged to host Professor Adrian Moore from St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, addressing the title ‘Immortality and Infinity’.

The basis of the talk was a discussion of Bernard Williams’ essay ‘The Makropulos Case’, which discusses whether earthly immortality would be a desirable thing or not. The scenario is as follows: if there were a pill which would guarantee you eternal life, with no deterioration of body or mind, but also with no possibility of any sort of death, would you take it? A brief poll found, perhaps surprisingly, that more than half of Eton’s budding philosophers would reject the pill, choosing a normal life span instead. This is also the point made by Bernard Williams, who argues that eternal life would be just too boring to bear.

Possible replies were discussed, both logico-mathematical, such as the goldfish model (reminiscent of the film ’50 first dates’), where the subject is saved from boredom by having a memory which only goes back 50 years or so; and also those which attacked the principles of Williams’ argument, including that it simply wouldn’t be boring, or that such an argument glorifies death. Thomas Nagel’s argument suggests that since we would never decide that today was the time to die, we should take the pill, but the distinction was raised between ‘wanting never to die’ and ‘never wanting to die’.

Some engaged and subtle questions indicated the quality, clarity and accessibility of the talk, including points about defence against bad arguments, altruistic immortality, and fame as a substitute for immortality. Those who might wish to think a little more about the ideas of the talk were directed to Bernard Williams’ original essay, ‘The Makropulos Case’ or Julian Barnes’ book ‘A History of the World in 10½ Chapters.

John Clark-Maxwell OS MS (GRP)