The Magazine

Indestructible Dream

Exploring the human instinct to live after death.

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By PETER LOPATIN
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H.L. Mencken was, perhaps, not wide of the mark in defining immortality as “the condition of a dead man who doesn’t believe he is dead.” Mencken’s quip points—if only indirectly—to a problem that inevitably arises when we consider the fact of our mortality: We know that we are going to die, but we cannot imagine our own nonexistence. This pair of realizations forms the two halves of what Stephen Cave calls the mortality paradox: “Death presents itself as both inevitable and impossible.” And in this informed and metaphysically nuanced work, he examines how our varied responses to that paradox have shaped civilization itself. 

More strongly, however, Cave argues that the desire for immortality drives civilization’s greatest achievements: “Almost all facets of humanity’s development can be understood as expressions of the will to live forever.” This is an expansive claim that bears a heavy burden of proof, and while I am not certain that Cave sustains the burden, he certainly comes close, presenting his arguments in a brisk, engaging style, and drawing effectively upon a wide-ranging stock of religious, philosophical, and scientific sources, both ancient and contemporary.

According to Cave, our inability to conceive of our personal nonexistence, and our abhorrence at the seeming inevitability of death, together provide “the conceptual peg” on which we construct “immortality narratives” (four, by his count) that serve to enable us to project ourselves into a future beyond the grave. These narratives (to whose description Cave devotes the bulk of his book) are, respectively: “Staying Alive,” “Resurrection,” “Soul,” and “Legacy.” Cave skillfully delineates the characteristics and appeal of each narrative and shows how each comes up short as a solution to the anxiety that motivates it. He then proposes an alternative—the “Wisdom” narrative—that offers much food for thought, if not a final resolution of the problem.

“Staying Alive” indefinitely—in its most basic sense—entails nothing more than refining the multiplicity of technologies that humans have devised to meet the challenges of a world outside Eden: agriculture to ensure a steady supply of food, architecture to shelter us, weapons for hunting and defense against our enemies, medicine to cure our ills and heal our wounds. 

In a deeper sense, however, staying alive has become an effort to transcend human finitude. The search for the secret to transforming base metals into gold was only half of the alchemists’ dream; the other half was the search for the elixir of life, the consumption of which would transform base humans into immortals. More broadly, and with examples ranging from China and Japan to Egypt and the ancient Middle East, Cave shows how the founding myths of ancient cultures often center around the promise of immortality. He argues persuasively that “the very idea of civilization is bound up with our hopes of living forever,” and that civilizations have, since antiquity, offered the promise of redemption from our mortality.

In the modern age, science has transformed the problem of conquering mortality from a noble quest pursued by mythical heroes into a series of discrete bioengineering problems, each of which is amenable to solution by technologies that are either already at hand or on the horizon. Drawing from dramatic developments in genetics, molecular biology, nanotechnology, and computer science—developments that have already produced tangible results—the quest for the modern equivalent of the alchemists’ elixir has been infused with a new sense of urgency. The so-called trans-humanists are unabashedly ambitious in this regard, promising, for example, that in due course we will be able to enhance our gray matter with “nanobots,” thereby increasing our cognitive capacities far beyond anything we can now imagine. Their scientific promissory note claims that we will reach the apotheosis called superintelligence, a state in which our knowledge of the laws of nature will be total, and nothing—including immortality—will be impossible for us. We will have achieved “longevity escape velocity” and will remain forever one step ahead of the grim reaper. 

Next in Cave’s list is the “Resurrection” narrative. In its traditional religious forms—exemplified in the resurrection of Jesus and drawing on the antecedent Judaic belief in bodily resurrection—we will rise, literally, from the grave and be made whole again. In its contemporary, scientifically inspired form, scientific resurrectionists (or “reanimators,” as Cave aptly calls them) claim that science will supplant the hand of God as the reanimating power. 

The “Soul” narrative posits a non-material, quasi-divine “stuff” that survives the death of the body and provides a convenient out:

The soul bridges the gap between this world and the next; it keeps an essential part of us out of the grave even when our bodies fail and permits us to fly directly to the next world without an embarrassing interim as a hapless pile of bones.

Finally, the “Legacy” narrative offers us the alternative of a cultural or biological “solution” to the problem posed by the mortality paradox: because homo sapiens is, as Ernst Cassirer put it, the “symbolic animal,” we can, in a sense, survive beyond the grave insofar as our achievements—whether artistic, scientific, military, or otherwise—survive us. Biologically, we may take comfort in the thought that, in our offspring and in the memories of those who knew us, we will—at least in some respect—“live on.” On a grander biological scale, we may find peace of mind in the realization that we are but a small part in a great web of life (“Gaia,” or whatever), or that, as Richard Dawkins has put it, “the genes in the world have an expectation of life that must be measured not in decades but in thousands and millions of years.”

But as to each of these immortality narratives, the devil is in the details, as Cave so deftly makes plain. We may live much longer lifespans, but how will we deal with the problems of overpopulation and social conflict that will result? And what about the inevitable boredom and sense of purposelessness of simply continuing “as is”? If I am going to live forever, what need is there to do this—or anything—today rather than tomorrow? What difference will any of my deeds make? All mistakes will be correctable. Eternal life—whether corporeal or spiritual—seems to entail the eternal indifference of “whatever” and “why bother?” Faced with the challenge of Hillel’s “If not now, when?” the reply would be, “Whenever.” 

As to resurrection, whether through cryo-preservation of the recently deceased, or “computational resurrection” whereby the contents of one’s brain are uploaded (or is it downloaded?) to some “virtual person in a virtual world who would have all of your recollections, opinions and quirks,” or turned into software and installed in a robot, these schemes raise serious conceptual questions (apart from doubts as to their scientific plausibi-lity) concerning the nature of personal identity. Is the downloaded duplicate a counterfeit you? Will the resurrected me be the disease-wracked specimen I was at the moment of my death? The questions are many, and the problems raised by those questions are genuine and disturbing. 

Although it avoids the pitfalls of the other immortality narratives, the “Legacy” narrative loses much of its luster in Woody Allen’s quip that “I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” Whether I survive as brief memories in the minds of those who knew me (memories whose duration is limited by their bearers’ own mortality) or in some “symbolic” form—perhaps through a hospital wing dedicated in my name, or in tales of my valor on the field of battle—I will be, nonetheless, as dead as a doornail.

Cave’s philosophically and scientifically informed skepticism concerning promises of immortality leads him to propose an alternative that might enable us to face our finitude without being reduced to mere “twitching blobs of biological protoplasm completely perfused with anxiety and unable to effectively respond to the demands of their surroundings.” The alternative is Cave’s “Wisdom” narrative. Drawing on such diverse sources as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the philosophies of Epicurus and Ludwig Wittgenstein, among many others, Cave fashions a plausible and compelling view of a life that does not recoil in horror at the thought of mortality. In place of that fear, he proposes a way of valuing the present—and of cherishing finitude itself—based on the convictions that: (1) unending life would be a curse, not a blessing; (2) fear of death simply makes no sense; and (3) we should devote ourselves to cultivating those very virtues which, if grasped, would obviate the existential angst that gives rise in the first instance to the desideratum of immortality.

A passage from Wittgenstein—one which, ironically, Cave does not cite—is very much on point: “If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.” This exhortation is one that we would do well to heed. But we must hurry, for time grows short.

Peter Lopatin teaches at the University of Connecticut at Stamford.