The Elflord and the Mayfly

I found this Existential Comic interesting for its insight on what things might be like for J.R.R. Tolkien’s version of elves.

(Click through for the rest.)

The author, on Twitter, shared a short video on Tolkien’s thoughts on death.

If you’re familiar with the mythology behind The Lord of the Rings, as revealed in The Silmarillion and other works, the elves are the elder children of Eru Ilúvatar (God).  As immortal beings, the eldest of them inhabited the world for vast primeval ages before Men (mortal humans) came along.  LOTR shows the elves in their waning days.

In the mythology, Men die and their souls leave the world.  In comparison, elves are immortal.  If their body is killed, their spirit goes to a place in the world run by one of the angelic powers that rule over the world (analogues of pagan high gods), and they may be reborn in another body.  So the elves are bound to the world in a way that Men are not.

In that mythology, the mortality of Men is described as a gift of Ilúvatar, but one that Men no longer see as a gift due to the influence of Morgoth, the first dark lord of Middle Earth (and Satan analogue).  The idea is that mortal humans are the lucky ones.

When I was younger, I thought this was a pretty neat idea.  Of course, as I’ve gotten older and more skeptical, questions arise.  Apparently most other things in Middle Earth also die.  Do they receive the gift also?  In particular, what about other intelligent species?  Tolkien was intentionally vague about this for the dwarves, but I don’t recall it being addressed at all for hobbits.  And this is a world where lots of other creatures show intelligence; what about them?

More generally though, this is part of an old genre, rationalizing why death is good.  It’s tempting to see all religions in this genre, but many ancient religions didn’t have particularly comforting ideas about death.  The modern versions often talks a lot about how the deadline of death sets us free, or inspires greatness in us.  (Ed Gibney recently shared an article he wrote reviewing a book along these lines.)

Most of this strikes me as rationalizing a virtue out of necessity, why something inevitable is actually a good thing.  As I’ve noted before, my own view leans Epicurean.  Death is nothing to be romanticized, but it’s also nothing to fear.  While I don’t think there is any kind of automatic afterlife awaiting us, I also don’t think it will be us languishing in some dark nothingness wishing we were still alive.  Subjectively, it will never exist for us, because we won’t exist once we’re dead.

It is worth contemplating what immortality might be like.  If it was in this world, we’d eventually be faced with some serious problems, notably the waning availability of energy as the relentless march of entropy eventually results in the heat death of the universe.  But even if we imagine that being overcome, it seems like any conceivable eternal existence would eventually degrade into a hellish boredom.  The most important gift might be knowing we can end it once we’ve decided we’ve had enough.

Still, I imagine most of us would prefer to have the elflord’s problem rather than the mayfly’s.

23 thoughts on “The Elflord and the Mayfly

  1. Beautiful post! Quite lovely. Apparently I am in your camp. We can be frightened of death or embrace it or ponder it, or … still be die (consider it a baton passing). The question always come down to how we will face ours. I focus on how I want to be when I am dying. I do not want to be a burden on my loved ones, so I am working now to take care of that business, but I want to die while thinking of all of the wonderful things I have seen and done and the wonderful people I have had in my life. Fantasizing an afterlife, or living forever with a god, doesn’t seem to me to ground the experience and if you are distracted when death comes, you won’t get to feel it truly.

    As to Tolkien’s incompleteness, consider it a baton passing. By leaving some points unclarified, the conversation continues.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks!

      I personally try not to worry about what I’ll think about my life at the end. That kind of thinking might incline me to do a lot of stuff in the short to medium term that I wouldn’t enjoy, just so in my final moments I wouldn’t regret not doing them. I’m personally of the opinion that if someone enjoys playing video games, and wants to do that in their spare time, they should do it. (Although I’m not much of a video game player myself.) They may not be able to remember hiking the Appalachian trail in their finals moments, but they’ll likely be able to recall a lot of fun moments in their definition of fun.

      Totally agreed on Tolkien’s incompleteness. His world is far more developed than most fictional ones. And he often left things intentionally ambiguous to preserve a sense of mystery. Even when he does provide an answer, such as the origin of the orcs or balrogs, he does it in a manner that someone can choose whether to accept it as the answer.


  2. I don’t think eternal existence must necessarily boring.

    It depends on the nature of the mind that must exist. For instance, I don’t think a dog would get bored of life. Whether a human would get bored of life would probably depend on the nature of the person. Whether they can get enough satisfaction from the ordinary daily pleasures of food and nature and so on. Also, memory is limited, so you would presumably be able to discover things “anew” forever as you forget.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree it depends on the mind. And it is definitely possible to get a lot of satisfaction from everyday life, but that is usually coupled with friends and family going through lifecycle changes, along with access to books, TV, internet, and other sources of intellectual simulation. When everyone is immortal, there wouldn’t be lifecycle changes, and eventually everyone would be an expert in everything.

      Unless as you note, we forget. Although the mind is very good at consolidating information down, so that we forget a lot of episodic details but remember gists, which might make it hard to rediscover things with the same innocence we originally came to them with. Assuming some remnant of a gist remains, how many times could we do it?

      Depending on how the immortality is achieved, if via technology, we might be able to simply alter ourselves to get satisfaction from that existence. Of course, once we start that, who knows where it would lead.


  3. Thanks for the shout out! I think the possible heat / cold deaths of the universe are an obvious problem to finding meaning in life, but I’d relish the chance to try. I’ve been watching all the Star Wars content on Disney+ during lockdown and often imagine all the evolutionary histories I could study across the universe if we could live to study them. I might write a fair few words about that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Ed. Definitely I agree if given the chance, I’d prefer to deal with the long term fate of the universe issues rather than exit in a few decades. For one thing, we might find out we’re wrong about that long term fate. Or we might eventually find a way to get around it.

      But even if we didn’t, just having the chance to learn more about reality, such as evolution in other biospheres, is enticing. Our existence might still eventually end, but it would end with us knowing a lot more than we do now.


  4. “Most of this strikes me as rationalizing a virtue out of necessity, why something inevitable is actually a good thing.”

    Spot on. I’m with you about wishing I had the elflord’s problem.

    Disagreeable Me seems to see things along these lines also.

    Frankly, I just don’t understand those people who say they embrace death (or actually embrace it, through suicide when they are not in the throes of a painful illness, say) without any belief in something beyond. They think in a *completely* different way from the way I think.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. If the “heat death of the universe” were overcome and there were an unlimited supply of free energy, then there would also always be more to know and more to do. The questions of where that free energy would be directed to would remain open until it became entropically bound.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My suspicion is if the heat death of the universe were overcome, there would probably be some other problem after it that needed to be solved. But you have to wonder, what would we become after 10^1000 years? Would there be anything left we’d recognize?


  6. Mike,
    I wonder if you could tell me what my own ideas suggest about “living eternally”. And here I’m referring to my belief that there’s a certain type of physics by which qualia emerges. In you and I this stuff effectively exists as the evolved conscious entity (or what we’re currently contemplating for eternal existence). Under my ideas, would this naturally coalesce into some kind of hellish boredom? If not, then why not?

    For a bonus question regarding your next post on proposed advanced civilizations, why do I believe that we may not get far in this regard, and by extension, why do I believe that no alien civilization should get far either?

    (Here I seek for you to gain a working level grasp of my ideas. To do so you’d need to take them out for a spin yourself.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Eric,
      I don’t know if you have been reading my posts, but I would like your opinion as to whether you think the system of mind is a separate and distinct system that emerges from the brain.


      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lee,
        I do commonly read your posts, though fortunately I suspect that I missed the associated ones that you’re now referencing. In any case I’m not sure of your specific position here, which I call “fortunate” since it should help ensure that the answer that I now provide to your question, will not be as biased.

        I believe that mind (which is to say consciousness, which is to say a punishment / reward dynamic sometimes referenced as “qualia”), emerges weakly, or epistemically, from the brain. In my “dual computers” model of brain function, the brain exists as a non-conscious computer and it creates this auxiliary teleological form of computer by which existence is perceived. I believe that this second form was required in order for organisms to more effectively deal with circumstances that are more “open”. Furthermore the reason that I don’t believe that consciousness “strongly emerges” from the brain, is because this position would conflict with my own naturalistic brand of metaphysics. I could be wrong about that, with people like Descartes and Chalmers right, but if so then there’d be nothing to figure out regarding its creation — it would be supernatural. I don’t get the sense that you swing that way either.


        1. Eric,
          Take a look at some of my posts. Where I do feel we can agree is that mind is a separate and distinct system that weakly emerges from the brain. If we could agree to dispense from using the word conscious and/or non-conscious in our descriptions of what is a mind and what is not, thereby referencing everything as a physical system, we should reach a consensus of sorts.


          Liked by 1 person

          1. Okay Lee, I’ve taken a look at your recent conversation with James Cross and Mike. I remain in agreement with James (and in opposition with Mike’s information explanation), that in a natural world there must be dedicated mechanisms associated with the creation of qualia. The electromagnetic radiation which exist by means of neuron firing seems like a promising potential medium for that, pending evidence. At this stage positing quantum mechanics itself, seems ridiculous to me. That would be like presenting and answer for something which isn’t grasped in science today (or qualia), with something else which isn’t grasped in science today (or the apparent uncertainty associated with Heisenberg’s principle). That’s not the way I roll.

            I saw where you perceived me to think that qualia exist as a fundamentally separate system from the brain. But given my hard naturalism, I’ve always meant this in an entirely epistemic capacity. And no, I won’t dispense from referencing all things in terms of conscious and otherwise, since I presume that certain physical dynamics create entities like me, though neither should my brain be conscious, nor should a rock (though each should function causally). Panpsychism might be fun, and I know that Mike must appreciate your presence here for that reason, but I’ll leave such bait for someone else to take.


          2. Eric,
            Fair enough. I’ll take my briefcase full of novel ideas and suck my thumb in a corner somewhere else 😦 “I just don’t understand why everyone is so resistant to new ideas” (suck, suck, sucking sound)


            Liked by 1 person

          3. Lee,
            So now you’re trying to “out Gandhi” me? This is where you gain strong agreement with Mike and I. The crazy thing is that so few seem to grasp the power of the tool that the man freely provided to all. Of course ML King used it, but such people seem rare.


    2. Eric,
      As I noted in our last conversation on your views about the physics of qualia, I can’t find a coherent interpretation of those views, so any attempt I made at predicting what you might say would be random guessing.

      On the bonus question, if I recall correctly, you think everyone will end up in pleasure machines. Many might, but my remarks about civilizations turning inward to virtual heavens apply here as well.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Actually Mike, in that last reply you made to me (found here: what you mentioned to not find coherent, was what I had referred to as “true altruism”. So your statement there simply put us in agreement in this regard — ontological altruism does not exist, though it can be useful to say that it does exist in an epistemic capacity. Theoretically here we’re all self interested products of our circumstances in the end. It seems to me that you enjoy saying that you disagree with me, though find it difficult to actually disagree as well as present a sensible case. Thus at times you find it effective to explicitly say that you disagree, even when you don’t.

        Anyway I’ll now tell you my answer. As others here have already mentioned, eternal existence would not inherently get boring for a standard human, since theoretically we could forget past experiences and so enjoy them again and again forever. Furthermore “boredom” exists as a certain type of qualia, and so if we were to live forever, then surely we’d also figure out ways to not feel things that we’d rather not.

        You’re entirely correct about why I believe that humanity will not get too far up the Kardashev Scale. But relying upon memory of things that I’ve said in the past, also won’t get you a working level understanding of my ideas. It should always be difficult to effectively assess what isn’t effectively understood.

        The challenge you will fight from the premise that there will always be people who don’t indulge in “fake pleasure”, is arguing that feeling good is not our end purpose, or what ultimately matters to us. On that other thread you already agreed with me about this when you said “We never do anything without affective motivation”. If true then that’s the unanimity. So apparently humanity continues circling its drain. No one wants for this to be the case, though reality remains reality regardless of what we want.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Eric,
          I promise I don’t look for reasons to disagree with you. (Quite the opposite.) But I also won’t pretend that we agree when we don’t. And you have a tendency to either assume or mischaracterize me as agreeing when I don’t.

          For example, I don’t agree with this statement:
          “ontological altruism does not exist, though it can be useful to say that it does exist in an epistemic capacity”
          I think altruism does exist. When you say it doesn’t, I think you’re engaging in eliminativism, taking something to not exist because we have insights into its mechanisms. Yes, when someone does an altrusitic thing, they’re doing it because of their own affective motivations, but to say they’d do anything else is to fundamentally misunderstand how the mind works. If you rescue a puppy because it makes you feel good, you’ve committed an act of altruism. Adding additional requirements for “true altruism” requires that the brain work in an incoherent manner.

          So, we do agree that we only act on affective motivations, but we disagree on what is necessary for an act to be altruistic. The latter is a matter of definition. The act is the act. But you can’t claim your definition as the true ontological one. (Doesn’t privileging a definition violate one of your key principles?)

          On forgetting, the issue is that human memory, at least, isn’t that neat and tidy. You may not remember the day to day details of when you were a young child, but I’m betting you still have a rough outline of the major events. (Admittedly, childhood memories are the least reliable.) Granted, if we go long enough there may be no trace remaining, but it’s not obvious to me it will happen before boredom sets in.

          I do agree that modifying ourselves to enjoy whatever the situation is, is a power we’re likely to have if we’ve engineered immortality.

          On the pleasure machine, I think you’re ignoring the affects people will have about the prospect. Particularly if they see others do so and turn into vegetables. Remember, we have a corollary in drug use. In principle, we could just keep ourselves shot up all the time. Most of us don’t. Even when there were no legal restrictions on it, it wasn’t universal for people to do it.

          You yourself have identified the reason. Hope. What hope is there in becoming a drug junkie? Likewise, what hope is there disappearing forever into a pleasure machine? I don’t doubt there will be people who fall in that trap, but I do doubt it will be universal.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Mike,
            I’m sure that you don’t consciously look for ways to disagree with me. Instead what seems to be at work is what some call “the unconscious”, and I call “quasi-conscious”. You’ve displayed plenty of agreement with me here, though under the guise of disagreement.

            Each of us agree that “ontological” altruism, or “true” altruism, does not exist. We don’t believe that this is how the mind works. What we do believe in is “epistemic” altruism, or how good it feels when we help a puppy in need for example. So you needn’t continue stating that we disagree here, since we don’t. And I’m not sinking to the level of Daniel Dennett by “eliminating” any terms. (Dennett eliminates “qualia” because he thinks he has insights into its mechanisms? That “multiple drafts” form of informationism? HA!)

            Regarding my first principle of epistemology, no I haven’t violated it by claiming there to be a true definition for “altruism”. There are simply more and less useful definitions in a given context for any given term, so I consider it the listener’s obligation to accept both explicit and implicit definitions in the quest to understand a given argument. Like it or not, on “altruism” we’re in agreement.

            Once humanity gets philosophy sorted out, and then mental and behavioral varieties of science begin hardening up, I do suspect that humanity will better lead its individual lives, as well as structure its individual societies. But shit happens. Problems will always come up for various people and societies to deal with. Becoming “an amazingly happy vegetable” is nothing to be hopeful about on the face of it, though it could be under trying situations. Given the cards that we’ve been dealt, to me this seems like our destiny. It’s not that I want it to be true, and I’m sure there will be tremendous efforts made to prevent such a fate, though fate it should somehow remain. Nothing lasts forever

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Eric,
            It seems clear to me we disagree about which definition of “altruism” is productive. But apparently we disagree even about whether we disagree. It’s hard to see how to productively move this discussion forward.

            I don’t think destiny or fate is a productive concept.

            Liked by 1 person

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