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: