Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization
by Stephen Cave
338 pages (Kindle)
When faced with the real possibility of immortality through consciousness-prolonging technology (see “3 Freaky Visions of Immortality“), comedian Lewis Black’s retort on the Daily Show may have said it all. “To me the fact that we all eventually drop dead is not a bug,” he snarked. “It’s a feature. It’s the only way we rid our society of old a**holes!”
Who really wants to live forever? Apparently, if Stephen Cave is right, most of us do. In his book, Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization, Cave sets out to show that there “are just four basic forms” of “immortality narratives” that inform what appears to be a body of diverse takes on eternal life.
These four paths, as he calls them, begin with the simplest of them all—“staying alive.” This is just as it sounds, the universal hope of not dying. “Most civilizations promise much more than merely safe passage to old age,” writes Cave, “they hold out the hope of an elixir that will defeat disease and debility for good.”
The next immortality narrative is that of resurrection, the idea of returning from the dead to a new life, which according to Cave is “crucial” to the “early success” of the monotheistic religions. Resurrection can take on more than the form of a body brought up from the ashes; technology can also promise a type of resurrection in the form of cryogenics.
The third is that of the soul narrative, or the hope of kissing this frail body goodbye for an unending life in heaven or a paradise of some kind in the form of an immaterial soul. And the last hope of living eternally is that of producing a legacy, which can be found in the dreams of celebrity or glory, the passing on of one’s genes through children, or as existing as part of the “unfolding cosmos itself.”
Cave has the impressive ability to circumnavigate the world of ideas that drive the human hope of immortality, but without losing the reader in the minutia. Articulate and fluid, the narrative of his book is engaging, pushing the reader forward through the history of the four paths and their many mimetic expressions found in religion, philosophy, and science.
Cave does more than tell stories and explain ideas, he also engages the difficulties bound up in them. For example, when discussing the idea of resurrection, he expresses the need to understand the complexities of personal identity. Which “you” will be resurrected? The Christian might imagine a resurrection as a gathering up of the matter that belonged to an individual, and the formation of that material into a new, resurrected version of the original individual. But does that solve the problem?
Unfortunately, “we are continually acquiring and losing atoms that are then recycled by nature—one estimate suggests that we replace 98 percent of our particles every year.” Those particles gained are those that once belonged to someone else, meaning “that you are now in part composed of atoms that once were part of others as they breathed their last.” How would a resurrection of the dead sift through this mess? Trying to sort out which version of you gets resurrected may not be easy; you are in a constant change so that your current self does not share a single atom with your newborn self. Even worse, you at any point are made up of atoms that belonged to someone else. Who gets priority over those atoms?
Cave also delves into the “mortality paradox” as that which “gives shape” to these four immortality narratives. We humans have powerful minds, but “the one thing that these minds cannot imagine is that very state of nonexistence…death presents itself as both inevitable and impossible.” We search for ways to resolve this paradox, with the end game being that “contrary to appearances, we really will live on, that bodily death is either not inevitable or not what it seems, that we are right to believe in the impossibility of our extinction.”
To solve the paradox, the common solution employed by the immorality narratives is to “deny death,” but he insists that there is a better solution, which he calls the “wisdom narrative.” “Followers of the wisdom approach…have seen that immortality is the illusion; death is the reality…they must therefore reach deeper—to undermine the causes that drive us to develop these comforting illusions in the first place.”
To undermine the mortality paradox we must embrace three virtues. Firstly, we must acknowledge that “unending life would most likely be a terrible curse” and that “we can never be dead,” since when death “reaches out for us, we are already gone.” Next, it means that while self-awareness is important, we need to avoid “self-absorption,” which we can do by “identifying with others.” This can also be a modification of the legacy narrative, in that it is living with the idea of working for the good of others, as might be the case if one sought a legacy that was entirely about the ego or about passing on one’s genes at the expense of someone else. And lastly, rather than worry about the future, we should cherish the present. Instead of focusing on what we have to lose, we should have gratitude for the life we have.
Immortality is an engaging and smooth read that has a chapter for everyone. There is no doubt in my mind that what Cave proposes will be uncomfortable for many, especially where it questions one’s theological treasures. His section on the legacy narrative will challenge the religious and non-religious alike and the book leaves the door open for significant discussion, meaning it is good for a book club or classroom conversation. There is another good reason to read Immortality, however, and that is to face the real reasons one might embrace a narrative for eternal life.
One may be surprised to discover that eternity is not really about love for a divine being, heaven, or hell, as much as it is about the fear of non-existence itself. It may be, as Martin Luther himself would acknowledge, a self-absorbed quest like this. The question is, if it is the latter, can you live with that answer?