From a comment on the Mises blog from a while back:
Stephan Kinsella March 11, 2005 at 2:34 pm
One thing to keep in mind is there is a difference between being immortal and knowing you are immortal. I have noted this before (where, I cannot find) regarding Ayn Rand’s views about the nature of value. In Virtue of Selfishness she writes:
It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil. … To make this point fully clear, try to imagine an immortal, indestructible robot, an entity which moves and acts, but which cannot be affected by anything, which cannot be changed in any respect, which cannot be damaged, injured, or destroyed. Such an entity would not be able to have any values; it would have nothing to gain or to lose; It could not regard anything as for or against it, as serving or threatening its welfare, as fulfilling or frustrating its interests. It could have no interests and no goalsâ€¦ Only a living entity can have goals or can originate them. And it is only a living organism that has the capacity for self-generated, goal-directed action.
(See this Randian essay on related matters: “Why An Immortal God Cannot Value And Therefore Cannot Love or Know Purpose” by Anton Thorn.)
The problem here, it seems to me, is the assumption that IF you are immortal, then you would be absolutely sure of this fact. Because the argument seems to rely not so much on *being* immortal, but in believing you are immortal. (I think the argument is fallacious in either case.)
What really matters, for action, is what one believes to be the case. This seems to me to apply to Rand’s hypo about “valuing” as much as it does this little discussion about time preference. Now in my view, we would still have time preference, and still value, even if we were immortal and knew it.
But even from the perspective of those here arguing about whether immortality affects time preference (or, in Rand’s case, the capacity to have values), the focus has to be on what the actor thinks or believes, not on what is really the case. Suppose A is immortal but does not know it. He only knows he is older than others and has not yet died. He assumes he has some weird gene that makes him live longer but he has no way of knowing or proving he is really immortal. In this case, he would not act as if he is immortal (whatever the implications of that are) since he does not think he is.
Also assume this: A is not immortal but falsely believes he is. Presumably he would act as if he is immortal. But note: today, many people, e.g. Christians, do in effect believe they are immortal; they believe they don’t really “die” but their soul goes to heaven and exists forever. These people evidently are (from their point of view) immortal, yet still value, and still have time preference.
So clearly, this entire focus on “immortality” is doubly mistaken. First, it is not immortality that matters–it is one’s beliefs about one’s own mortality. And second, apparently even a belief in immortality does not undercut the capacity to have values of time preference.
I really think a big flaw in this entire hypo is that no one can ever know they are immortal–even an immortal person could not know it. In fact, it’s probably impossible to be immortal anyway, given entropy and the universe’s ultimate collapse.
A related, but better, argument, is that of Mises, when he argues that God cannot act (and so the concept is incoherent). See, e.g., Mises in UFOES:
Natural theology saw the characteristic mark of deity in freedom from the limitations of the human mind and the human will. Deity is omniscient and almighty. But in elaborating these ideas the philosophers failed to see that a concept of deity that implies an acting God, that is, a God behaving in the way man behaves in acting, is self-contradictory. Man acts because he is dissatisfied with the state of affairs as it prevails in the absence of his intervention. Man acts because he lacks the power to render conditions fully satisfactory and must resort to appropriate means in order to render them less unsatisfactory. But for an almighty supreme being there cannot be any dissatisfaction with the prevailing state of affairs. The Almighty does not act, because there is no state of affairs that he cannot render fully satisfactory without any action, i.e., without resorting to any means. For Him there is no such thing as a distinction between ends and means. It is anthropomorphism to ascribe action to God. Starting from the limitations of his human nature, man’s discursive reasoning can never circumscribe and define the essence of omnipotence.
And in Human Action:
Scholastic philosophers and theologians and likewise Theists and Deists of the Age of Reason conceived an absolute and perfect being, unchangeable, omnipotent, and omniscient, and yet planning and acting, aiming at ends and employing means for the attainment of these ends. But action can only be imputed to a discontented being, and repeated action only to a being who lacks the power to remove his uneasiness once and for all at one stroke. An acting being is discontented and therefore not almighty. If he were contented, he would not act, and if he were almighty, he would have long since radically removed his discontent. For an all-powerful being there is no pressure to choose between various states of uneasiness; he is not under the necessity of acquiescing in the lesser evil. Omnipotence would mean the power to achieve everything and to enjoy full satisfaction without being restrained by any limitations. But this is incompatible with the very concept of action. For an almighty being the categories of ends and means do not exist. He is above all human comprehension, concepts, and understanding. For the almighty being every “means” renders unlimited services, he can apply every “means” for the attainment of any ends, he can achieve every end without the employment of any means. It is beyond the faculties of the human mind to think the concept of almightiness consistently to its ultimate logical consequences. The paradoxes are insoluble. Has the almighty being the power to achieve something which is immune to his later interference? If he has this power, then there are limits to his might and he is no longer almighty; if he lacks this power, he is by virtue of this fact alone not almighty.
Are omnipotence and omniscience compatible? Omniscience presupposes that all future happenings are already unalterably determined. If there is omniscience, omnipotence is inconceivable. Impotence to change anything in the predetermined course of events would restrict the power of any agent.
Action is a display of potency and control that are limited. It is a manifestation of man who is restrained by the circumscribed powers of his mind, the physiological nature of his body, the. vicissitudes of his environment, and the scarcity of the external factors on which his welfare depends. It is vain to refer to the imperfections and weaknesses of human life if one aims at depicting something absolutely perfect. The very idea of absolute perfection is in every way selfcontradictory. The state of absolute perfection must be conceived as complete, final, and not exposed to any change. Change could only impair its perfection and transform it into a less perfect state; the mere possibility that a change can occur is incompatible with the concept of absolute perfection. But the absence of change—i.e., perfect immutability, rigidity and immobility—is tantamount to the absence of life. Life and perfection are incompatible, but so are death and perfection.
The living is not perfect because it is liable to change; the dead is not perfect because it does not live.
I.e., God cannot act. Yet part of the idea of God is that he does act. So, it’s an incoherent idea.
Update: See also The Scarcity of Time:
The Scarcity of Time
In the comments to this post on time preference, I pointed to a confusion in Ayn Rand’s use of the example of “an immortal, indestructible robot” to show that only “life” makes the concept of “value” possible. Her basic idea was that an immortal, indestructible robot “would not be able to have any values; it would have nothing to gain or to lose; It could not regard anything as for or against it, as serving or threatening its welfare, as fulfilling or frustrating its interests. It could have no interests and no goals.”
The problem here, as I see it, is the assumption that if you are immortal, then you would necessarily know this to be the case. The argument seems to rely not so much on being immortal, but in believing you are immortal. Suppose A has secretly been granted immortality, but he does not know it. Wouldn’t he have values still, in Rand’s paradigm? And what about mortal A who delusionally believes he is immortal? According to Rand, he would have no values (but this seems to be belied by experience–both insane, and sane, people, who believe in a version of immortality nevertheless seem to have values, even in Rand’s loose sense; and they certainly demonstrate that they value things, when they act).
Re-reading Hoppe’s A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism today, as is my wont, I notice Hoppe argues (p. 9) that one reason acting necessarily imposes costs is that we only have one body so can only do one thing a time with it. Regarding time, he notes:
And I would be restrained by scarcity in another respect as well: as long as this scarce resource “body” is not indestructible and is not equipped with eternal health and energy, but rather is an organism with only a limited life span, time is scarce, too. The time used up in pursuing goal A reduces the time left to pursue other goals.
Notice the similarity to the indestructible robot idea above. In this case, I think Hoppe is correct that our lives are finite and “The time used up in pursuing goal A reduces the time left to pursue other goals”, which means that time is, indeed, scarce. This is one factor that enters into our decisions as real, live acting humans in the real world of time scarcity.
It seems to me that this is not only because our bodies are “not indestructible,” but also because someone could never, even in principle, know that his body was indestructible. For even if one somehow were magically given immortality and lived from day to day unchanging for thousands of years, how could one be sure that this would last forever? So it seem to me that even if a person was truly immortal and indestructible, time would be scarce for him, since he would not know he was immortal.
Conversely, this would imply that religious people who claim to believe they will live forever in the afterlife either do not view time as scarce, or that they do not really believe what they claim to.
In this connection, see also Mises’s comments on how the concept of action would apply to God:
Scholastic philosophers and theologians … conceived an absolute and perfect being, unchangeable, omnipotent, and omniscient, and yet planning and acting, aiming at ends and employing means for the attainment of these ends. But action can only be imputed to a discontented being, and repeated action only to a being who lacks the power to remove his uneasiness once and for all at one stroke. An acting being is discontented and therefore not almighty. If he were contented, he would not act, and if he were almighty, he would have long since radically removed his discontent. For an all-powerful being there is no pressure to choose between various states of uneasiness; he is not under the necessity of acquiescing in the lesser evil. Omnipotence would mean the power to achieve everything and to enjoy full satisfaction without being restrained by any limitations. But this is incompatible with the very concept of action. … The paradoxes are insoluble. Has the almighty being the power to achieve something which is immune to his later interference? If he has this power, then there are limits to his might and he is no longer almighty; if he lacks this power, he is by virtue of this fact alone not almighty. [emphasis added]