by Jeroen Bouterse
“Everyone feels it’s an unbearable thought, to be limited in time, – but what if you were spatially unlimited, would that not be […] as desolate as immortality? By Zeus, no one is ever depressed because they do not physically coincide with the universe, I at least have never heard a philosopher or poet about it”
I was reminded of this thought, expressed by a character in a novella by the Dutch writer Harry Mulisch, when I read Tim Sommers’s reflections about death here on 3QuarksDaily. Sommers suggests a similar symmetry between time and space: building on the idea that we can think of ourselves as four-dimensional creatures, he wonders why we should care more about being temporally limited than about being spatially limited.
Sommers presents his case, not as a clinching argument that demonstrates that death ought to be nothing to us, but as a therapeutic move that could make it lose some of its sting, changing our perspective on it by showing it to be like something we already accept. I think that is a fair strategy, although in the end I find neither Mulisch’s (character’s) nor Sommers’s version of this symmetry argument convincing.
Mulisch’s point concerns the absurdity or inhumanity of the infinite. His analogy in this respect seems to be about our extension in space and time: the character voicing it suggests we would like to exist in more time, and we might even believe we would like to exist in all time. However, we do not have that same desire to encompass the entire universe spatially and this should give us pause about wanting to encompass it temporally. In Mulisch’s version, then, the spatial counterpart to living longer is taking up more space. What we value is being large temporally speaking, and the question is: Why we do not accept the symmetry with space?
Depending on precisely what is implied by this, this version of the argument might be quite easy to answer. In particular, it begs the question whether we think of our lives as defined by extension at all. Descartes famously thought they weren’t: according to him, our consciousness itself is not a three-dimensional object, and we perceive the fact that we have a body extended in space only indirectly, through the tiny (albeit significant) portion of the activity of our brain of which we become aware.
Descartes was doing metaphysics here – defining underlying substances – and you, like me, probably don’t buy into his metaphysics. The metaphysics is not necessarily the point, though. If the question whether we are, at bottom, creatures defined by extension in space has a metaphysical answer, it is not evident whether and how it should lead us to adjust our perspective on what is valuable about our lives. Descartes shows that it is possible to value primarily those aspects of our subjective life that take up time rather than space, to identify oneself as thought rather than body. That is not a metaphysical but a phenomenological reality, it does not lend itself as readily to universalizing conclusions, but it illustrates the general point: every way in which our experience of time is unlike that of space breaks the symmetry between death and not-existing-in-more-space.
In Mulisch’s case, it is not very clear what is entailed by existing in more space, other than taking up more space; how the thought-experiment would change what it is like to be us. Is the removal of spatial limitations just a matter of spatial extension, or would ‘physically coinciding’ with the whole universe also transform our experience of it? Would we be simply the same consciousness attached to a larger machine, or would we temporarily, like Newton’s God, have the universe for our “sensorium”? The symmetry argument could, even in Mulisch’s version, plant seeds in the mind of knee-jerk Cartesians like me that could lead them to reconsider, actually, how much of that consciousness they value so much is tied up with the body; not, now, the body as simple three-dimensional extension, but as the thing that makes all conscious experience possible, whose limits circumscribe the subjective limits of our lives much like its limits in time.
Indeed, Sommers’s version of the argument in particular seems to revolve not around being extended per se, but around being in a position to experience or do certain things: “death is no worse than being unable to go everywhere we want to go during our life”, he says. This suggests that it is interaction with people, objects, places (and times) around us that we value. Death limits what we can do or experience, but in a similar way, “being spatially limited” does.
When we do include our bodies into our conscious experience in this richer way, the limitations that their spatial boundaries put upon us have been noticed, sometimes in one breath with their temporal boundaries. In a short story by Voltaire, an inhabitant of Saturn more than a mile tall talks to an even taller interstellar traveler about what it’s like having only 72 senses, being restricted to one planet with only five moons, and only living to 500 Saturn-years or 15 000 earth-years: “our existence is a point, our duration an instant, our globe an atom”, he complains. In Voltaire’s story, creatures on larger planets live orders of magnitude longer, but their bodies are also orders of magnitude larger and have many more senses. Together, all these facts contribute to their having more experience of the world than we do.
Indeed, all limits are limits. That also means, however, that any special symmetry between space and time requires further argument. It does not follow simply from the insight that space, like time, is also ‘a dimension’. That might work if we see our life as a four-dimensional object whose size we may want to maximize, but although Mulisch seems to be suggesting that version of the argument, I don’t believe Sommers is. Again, we don’t desire to increase a metaphysical substance, or to be allotted in some way a larger share of objective physical dimensions, just for the sake of it; what concerns us are the restrictions that limit our subjective lives. But if that is the case, if the question at stake is what most constrains those lives, then it seems to me at least that time is a more outrageously scarce resource than space. We run out of it sooner.
Perhaps the best way to put this is by asking what the spatial equivalent of death is. We cannot go everywhere we want, that is true; but the temporal counterpart of going anywhere we want is not immortality, it is time travel. This is another case of the general point, that our constraints in moving through space are different in practice from our constraints in moving through time (click here for the relevant xkcd comic, by the way). I also don’t really see a way in which time and space are interconvertible – to say: “if only I had more space”, as if that would be like having more time. Sommers may want to reply that the things we are interested in could conceivably play out simultaneously rather than in sequence, so that we are limited by being in one body in one place at once; we just don’t notice it because the alternatives involving simultaneity are more far-fetched and more difficult to imagine than the notion of continuing to live, which after all we are already accustomed to. The question is, then, whether my failure of imagination should count as an argument against the symmetry argument.
I think it should. I don’t mean you are not supposed to dream either about time travel or about existing in multiple places at once; I love how Voltaire speculates about having more senses and about interplanetary and interstellar travel, and I would love to think and talk more about what it could mean to be less ‘spatially limited’. But if I am right to understand that it would mean something new, something qualitatively different, then it is precisely for that reason a different kind of wish than that of continuing to live. Wishing that life lasted longer is not like dreaming about acquiring a superpower or winning the lottery; it is thoroughly conservative, precisely because we are already living another day every time, until we don’t. The frustrating thing about death is not just that it puts limits on what I could have or could become, but also that it takes away what I already have and already am, and what feels inalienable.
I know this intuition rests on a failure to internalize thoroughly a naturalistic understanding of the world. A proper materialist, a genuine Epicurean ought to understand that death is a part of life, that we are constellations of stuff that has cause nor duty to sustain us indefinitely. But to the simple-minded Cartesian, the realization that we live in such a world will always remain an empirical discovery, a truth not intimately felt but only accepted as a fact about the world, grasped with horror and alienation to be a fact about ourselves as well. While I am awake, I believe it is my nature to be awake, and while I am alive, I believe it is my nature to be alive.
That is bad metaphysics, of course; and I know I can’t universalize private and primitive feelings like this, expressed as I have them in contingent and imprecise language. Other people are different. I have listened with amazement to friends who make much more of every day than I do, who told me convincingly and with no apparent reason to deceive me that they did not feel entitled to the next day, and would be at peace if fate denied it to them. They seem to have a full understanding of the facts – that life is short and death means annihilation – and are able to bear them with equanimity. To me, they are secular saints, stranger, stronger and more charismatic than Socrates or Dumbledore, whose courage was artificially inflated by their view about what death is to the well-organized mind.
So honestly, if I said ‘we’ above (I’m afraid I did, quite a lot, as to feel more philosophical and less alone), actually I just meant me all along. In no way do I want to seem to be arguing against peace of mind or in favor of a deep fear of death, as if that fear is a necessary part of conscious existence. I approve of Sommers’s modest and honest attempt to try and see the enemy in a different light. If the symmetry between death as a temporal limitation and bodily finitude as a spatial limitation moves you, I am not sure that I provided an argument as to why it shouldn’t. It’s just that I don’t see it. Then again, I have never really got it when people have compared death, which is the opposite of life and consciousness, to things that are compatible with life and consciousness, and are already part of it. Sommers, far from ignoring this point, is precisely pointing out this familiarity bias, asking whether a limitation that looks sui generis may actually be more like constraints that we already accept as part of life. Death imposes limitations upon us of a kind we already experience ‘all the time’, and which we do, precisely for that reason, not continually experience as terrifying.
My reflections on his essay have hardened rather than softened me in my conviction that space is not like time in a way that I find relevant, but they may have weakened my belief that death is a limitation incomparable to any other. I can see how imagining other ways in which our lives could have been richer – as in Voltaire’s science fiction – might have the paradoxical therapeutic effect of diluting the importance of that one big calamity ever so slightly, much in the same way that awareness of all the other ways in which I have been lucky and privileged helps to realize that life per se is not the only fragile good, not the only thing to feel both grateful for and jealous of.
Voltaire treats living orders of magnitude longer than we do as a difference in degree only, a difference comparable to our lack of sense organs and understanding, and in some sense no difference at all. Length of life is one of a range of variables that, in his story, differ by planet, and in all of these there is always room to desire more. “Our imagination goes beyond our needs”, says the Saturnian, about having only 72 senses. His interstellar traveler, whose lifespan surpasses that of the Saturnian by a good ten million years, admits: “We are always complaining of how short it is. This must be a universal law of nature.”
After reflecting on how sensible people know to make the most of what they have, their conversation smoothly moves on to the next topic. Death was just one of the things to discuss.
 Harry Mulisch, De elementen (1988; ed. 2003 (‘Lijsters’), Wolters-Noordhoff) page 43, my translation.
 On the distinction between the ordinary or manifest on the one hand, and the fundamental on the other, see Theodore Sider’s discussion in ‘The evil of death: what can metaphysics contribute?’ (http://tedsider.org/papers/death.pdf).
 I read the translation by Blake Linton Wilfong: http://www.wondersmith.com/scifi/micro.htm. Direct quotations checked against https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/4649/pg4649.html