What does "immortal" mean?

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WilliamLehnsherr
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What does "immortal" mean?

Postby WilliamLehnsherr » Thu Dec 12, 2013 1:36 am UTC

Does immortal mean you cannot die at all? Or, does it mean it's possible to live forever, but it's not guaranteed? (i.e. you can't die of old age, but you can be killed).

I think the former is correct, but quite a few people seem to disagree. I've noticed fantasy novels/films tend to use the latter, so fans of that genre do too. This definition says it is "the ability to live forever; eternal life", which could mean either (it doesn't say "will live forever").

XKCD seems like the place to ask this question. What do you all think?

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notzeb
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Re: What does "immortal" mean?

Postby notzeb » Thu Dec 12, 2013 2:17 am UTC

I define it the second way: possible to live forever, but not guaranteed. After all, anything can be killed if you try hard enough. (I'm looking at you, Worm.)
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Deva
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Re: What does "immortal" mean?

Postby Deva » Thu Dec 12, 2013 3:34 am UTC

Classifies most/all deities as immortal. Might "die", be incapacitated, or bound for an unspecified length of time. Revives eventually.
Changes its form depending on the observer.

Derek
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Re: What does "immortal" mean?

Postby Derek » Thu Dec 12, 2013 4:19 am UTC

Words are not typically defined very precisely. "Immortal" can and has been used both ways. If it's important, ask for clarification.

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davidstarlingm
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Re: What does "immortal" mean?

Postby davidstarlingm » Thu Dec 12, 2013 6:05 am UTC

Mortality is the inevitability of death....so, strictly speaking, immortality means death is not inevitable. Doesn't mean death is impossible.

WilliamLehnsherr
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Re: What does "immortal" mean?

Postby WilliamLehnsherr » Thu Dec 12, 2013 6:12 am UTC

Derek wrote:Words are not typically defined very precisely. "Immortal" can and has been used both ways. If it's important, ask for clarification.


Don't worry, I get that. Like I said, even the one definition I gave in the first post could go either way. I'm mainly curious as to what people's thoughts were and which meaning they use. I don't expect to get an answer saying definitively which is correct.

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davidstarlingm
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Re: What does "immortal" mean?

Postby davidstarlingm » Thu Dec 12, 2013 2:43 pm UTC

If you're contemplating what wish you'd like to pose to a magical dragon/genie/wish-granting-entity-of-your-choice, there are definitely some things to keep in mind. You should know what kind of wish-granting-entity you're dealing with. If he/she/it has a reputation for screwing people over by being overally literal in its wish-interpretation, bad things can happen no matter what words you use.

For example, if you really just want to never get old, there are a few different phrasings you can use. All of them can end in tragedy.
  • "I want to live forever!" (you contract an incurable disease and die the next month, but they use your stem cells to develop an immortal cell line for vaccines)
  • "Grant me eternal youth!" (you're forever three years old)
  • "I don't want to age a day past forty!" (you die the night before your fortieth birthday)
  • "I wish my cell division was not affected by the Hayflick limit!" (your body never ages but toxin accumulation in your immortal cells kills you by age 130)
  • "I wish my body would always repair itself!" (you stop aging, but your brain also stops aging, meaning that your memories no longer fade and you lose the ability to measure the passage of time, driving you insane within months)
  • "Don't ever let my consciousness cease!" (you're the first candidate for brain upload, but they end up just putting your brain on a hard drive somewhere and burying it in a vault)
Genies can be kind of sucky this way.

Immortality can mean a lot of different things:
  • Not aging
  • Not aging and regeneration from all injuries
  • Not aging, regeneration from all injuries, and immunity to all diseases
  • The ability to retard aging with a serum or potion of some kind
  • A lifespan on the order of millenia and immunity to human vulnerabilities
If you really want to be immortal in the living-happily-forever sense, you need immortality, invulnerability, and probably a host of other powers. Omniscience and teleportation are good, too, in case someone decides to throw you into the center of a star.

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mathmannix
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Re: What does "immortal" mean?

Postby mathmannix » Fri Dec 13, 2013 2:32 pm UTC

Yes, immortality is treated differently in different sources. I guess the sliding scale would be:

1. Cannot die of "old age" or disease - but still could die from drowning, a great fall, murder, etc.
2. Can only die from being murdered.
3. Can only die from being murdered by a specific weapon, or by being killed in a specific way (such as beheading), or only by another immortal, or only by magic, etc.
4. Death is impossible.

And all of these come in two basic flavors - aging and non-aging. If one is born immortal, even the "non-aging" flavor usually lets a person get to the prime of their life, whether that is considered to be 16 or 40. Of course, if one is non-aging and immortality is something acquired (like for a vampire), then if it is acquired as a child, the person will stay a child forever.

Immortal gods and heroes in classic mythology were usually considered to keep eternal youth, and could not be killed at all. But sometimes they could be killed only by each other...

Superman, while on earth, is effectively immortal. He has the capability to live forever, but he definitely ages. He can die from kryptonite, or in combat with other super beings (other Kryptonians, Doomsday obviously, etc.). If he travels to a red-sun planet he can die as easily as a human on earth. He might be able to contract Kryponian disesases even while on earth.

Immorality can suck in at least two ways - one is the aging without death which is common enough to have its own trope. Another is that, even if one is type 4 and non-aging, you can still be immobilized forever - trapped in a coffin at the bottom of the ocean, or floating through space indefinitely, or cast into a bottomless pit. And being immortal doesn't necessarily mean no pain!
I hear velociraptor tastes like chicken.

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davidstarlingm
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Re: What does "immortal" mean?

Postby davidstarlingm » Fri Dec 13, 2013 2:43 pm UTC

Inability to die would very seriously suck if someone was hellbent (no pun intended) on causing you as much pain as they possibly could.

In order to make immortality not end horribly, the list of powers you would need gets really long. Not only do you need protection from physical pain, but you also need protection from existential horror/psychological pain/etc. You need to ensure that you won't be flung into the center of a star (or, possibly worse, a black hole).

Is it possible to construct a wish that would grant the wisher true eternal life while still retaining the essential aspects of humanity? Or is any true immortal doomed to forever lose touch with what it was to be mortal?

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gmalivuk
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Re: What does "immortal" mean?

Postby gmalivuk » Sat Dec 14, 2013 7:38 pm UTC

It is impossible to construct *any* finite wish that does only and all the things you want it to do.

That said, the standard approach to superpowers of any kind (including immortality) in most fiction is to just paint the humanity on over the top. Realistically, anyone with powers that remove them so far from the vulnerabilities of everyday human life is going to eventually lose touch with what it is to be human. At best, they'd start making decisions "for the greater good" that look pretty horrific to the rest of us (think Watchmen).
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davidstarlingm
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Re: What does "immortal" mean?

Postby davidstarlingm » Mon Dec 16, 2013 2:48 pm UTC

Yeah....realistically, I don't see any attempt at achieving immortality working very well.

WilliamLehnsherr
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Re: What does "immortal" mean?

Postby WilliamLehnsherr » Mon Dec 16, 2013 11:16 pm UTC

Well, this thread took a rather interesting turn in my absence.

Perhaps if I ever get multiple wishes, my first wish will be that none of my wishes are interpreted in a way contrary to my intentions. So no literal and jackass genies for me. Of course, nothing protects me from that wish being interpreted in some weird way.


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