fear of infinity

amoeba02This discussion of infinite time and its consequences came about because a character in the story Lighter than Claire suggested (not literally) that it might be worth writing something on the topic.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the vanitas, or vanity, art style carried the religious reminder that life is temporary—mostly everyone dies. Nevertheless, concepts of living forever, life after life, and life after death have been around for a long time, in many religions as well as in fiction. While some people are quite keen on one afterlife possibility or another, others, like Richard Dawkins,¹ would prefer to simply stay dead after they die.

It’s easy to imagine that, from a strictly scientific point of view, that’s exactly what happens, but if you take some ideas from speculative fiction and consider their scientific and philosophical implications, it’s not quite so obvious. In science fiction, things often happen unexpectedly after death—zombification, minds in machines, brains in poorly labelled jars, etc—and generally the revivification techniques have unfortunate side effects. Although becoming a zombie might have some attractions, there are other sci fi concepts that are more relevant to an afterlife.


One link between science fiction and the science/philosophy of an afterlife comes from the concepts of teleportation and cloning. The important aspects are summarized by Sam Harris² in his book “Waking Up.” Taking an example from Teleportation 101, we can imagine a person, say John Carter, being copied, transmitted as information, and reconstituted at a remote location, like Mars. In effect the traveler has been cloned, and the original who was left behind probably has to be humanely euthanased to avoid confusion. Harris discusses the issue of who is whom from the standpoint of psychological identity. Since the gap in consciousness needed for the transmission of information and reassembly is hardly different to anesthesia or deep sleep as far as the John Carter on Mars is concerned, Harris concludes that, in essence, both are John Carter.

So is teleportation a good deal, or should you avoid buying a ticket unless it’s low season and you get a discount? If you can’t resist a bargain, then you’re already very close to a kind of life after death, because that’s exactly what’s happened to John Carter. But it turns out you don’t actually need to buy a teleportation ticket, and in fact you might not need any sort of teleportation or cloning device at all.

sleep’s half brother sleep and his half brother

From the point of view of immediate reality, the only kind of time that matters is time that we’re aware of in some way as it passes, ie, not deep sleep or unconsciousness. Sleep’s half brother is death, and without awareness, death lasts for no time at all. But even though no conscious time passes for the deceased, time in this universe and probably in others keeps running on, to somewhere close to infinity. The problem with being the deceased person in this scenario is that, on the way to infinity, a lot of stuff might happen to you:

  • Sentient avocados from Rigel 5 might somehow get hold of a copy of your mind, and after you die³ they might revive you as an intelligence inside a dishwashing robot.
  • As this universe, or another universe, contracts and oscillates, an exact copy of you might reappear purely by chance. It’s a clone, but a clone is you.
  • And so on.

who’s afraid of infinity?

At its heart, I think fear of infinity is a fear of the vastness that we’re all a part of. For me, it’s something to be treasured. How lucky we are to know so much about our reality, and still have so much to explore and try to understand. As Robert Louis Stevenson put it,

The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Anyway, in case you’re still concerned, I’m sure the Rigelians treat their robots well—days off and a regular service plan at least.

¹Comment made in the TV series ‘Sex, Death, and the Meaning of Life.’

²Sam Harris, “Waking Up,” Transworld, 2014.

³After isn’t really the right word here. Time, like space, is a property of a particular universe, but the timeline of consciousness is tied to our memories.

3 thoughts on “fear of infinity

    • Thank you for reading, Clarissa. This is one of the pop science pieces that I wrote and then stopped posting although I have a few more in the draft stage waiting for me to find the time to finish them off. I don’t think people realize that the concept of an afterlife isn’t ruled out scientifically, and in a way, it is quite frightening, wherever Jim Morrison might be… 🙂

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